City Council, BPS grapple over water issue

The Boston Public Schools (BPS) administration and the City Council’s Education Committee grappled during a May 18 meeting at English High School over how to handle recent possible lead exposure at drinking fountains in six schools, including the Curley K-8. The fountains were mistakenly left on after being tested for contaminants including lead, and students may have used them.

The other five schools were Another Course to College, Boston Green Academy, Mather Elementary, Trotter K-8, and Lee K-8.

The tests were part of a pilot program to shift schools with relatively safe tap water from bottled water to water fountains. Bottled water costs the district $400,000 each, said Kim Rice, chief operating officer of BPS, at a May 18 meeting of the City Council’s Education Committee held at the English School to discuss the issue.

Tito Jackson, councilor for District 7, which covers a portion of Egleston Square, was outraged.

“Why is BPS not heeding the call to shut down all water fountains?” he asked. “Can you understand how parents have a trust issue? Why don’t we hit the ‘stop’ button and make sure no students are ingesting water that’s above allowable levels?”

Pediatrician Dr. Linda Grant was at the meeting to answer the councilors’ medical questions, and to reassure the public that the levels of lead students may have been exposed to are not enough to cause lead poisoning or brain damage.

“The amount of lead that a child might have been exposed to [while the water fountains were on] isn’t in the order of magnitude that we need to worry about,” she said.

Grant said lead paint chips and soil that is still contaminated from leaded gasoline are much more harmful. Lead in water is dangerous for children under two years old, said Grant, but school-aged children are able to clear small amounts of lead from their systems without harm.

“That’s not minimizing it; that’s a reality,” she said.

Grant said there was no medical reason to test BPS students for lead poisoning, although she said she understands why parents might need the reassurance of a test.

The Boston Public Health Commission agrees with Grant, and does not recommend that BPS screen all children for lead poisoning who may have been exposed to lead, said Rice. She added, “But for any family that wants to get tested, we will make sure they do not pay for that.”

Meanwhile, families feel out of the loop, despite a letter and a recorded call that went out to affected school communities. Anna Ross, the parent of two children at Mather School testified at the meeting. “I can assure you that the fear and distrust level at the Mather is very high right now.”

To assuage that distrust, Rice and her team will be visiting the six affected schools to hear families’ concerns and answer their questions.

Thirty-five schools have working water fountains, all of which are safe for drinking. Those fountains have been tested for lead in April, and the test results have been verified by three different groups.      “If the fountains are on, you’re OK,” said Rice.

The remaining schools’ tap water has not been tested, and those fountains are off.

“This is absolutely too complicated,” said Jackson, who wants all schools to have bottled water. “Turn them off, and start again in September when everyone is feeling good.”

“It’s not good access,” Rice said. She explained that bottled water is harder for students to access since the five-gallon coolers are most commonly kept not in hallways but in just a few classrooms, depend on the availability of cups, and are not always full.

Rice said that part of the BPS’s long-term plan is to bring safe water fountains to all schools, both to improve students’ access to water and to eliminate the expense of bottled water. Part of the new BPS water policy will improve the testing process so that students are not again allowed to access contaminated water. Additionally, the new policy will require that all water sources in all schools be tested annually.

The new policy will be presented to the School Committee on May 25, after the Gazette deadline, and will go before the Education Committee at its June meeting. But for Jackson, the issue is bigger than water policy.

“This is about systematic underfunding of the BPS,” he said. “We have some of the oldest schools, and over $1 billion in deferred maintenance.”

[This article has been updated to reflect the correct cost of bottle water for Boston Public Schools.]


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