High Levels of Water Contaminants Threaten Student and Staff Safety as They Return to Buildings
By Caden Meyers
Legionella, copper, and lead.
Students will face these water contaminates when they return to face-to-face learning on March on March 18.
BPS district contracted with Trace Analytical to test the water in all the schools at least once every two years. These contaminants were found when Trace Analytical first tested the water in Birmingham Public Schools (BPS) on October 19. The contaminants were reported in their findings on November 4. Even after a full chlorine flush in all buildings to remediate the problem, the district sent a message out to parents on February 22 that the legionella was still at high levels, especially in the two high schools with 98 counts at Seaholm and 97 counts at Groves.
The 79 taps at Groves and 18 taps at Derby contain Legionella pneumothorax, the type of legionella that causes Legionnaires disease, a disease with symptoms that can mimic COVID-19 respiratory distress. Legionnaires disease results in fever, coughing, muscle and chest pain. During the Flint water crisis, within a year thirteen Flint residents officially died from Legionnaires disease; however, one study suggests that 119 deaths attributed to pneumonia during the time the city relied on the contaminated Flint River water were likely due to undiagnosed Legionnaires disease.
AP biology teacher Cynthia Sherman expressed her concern about the BPS Board of Education’s (BOE) decision to return students, full-time face-to-face, with these contaminants in the district’s water supply. As part of public comment on February 2, Sherman, along with her husband and social studies teacher Jim Sherman, thanked the board members for looking after the community with a hybrid option, but, knowing the board planned to discuss full-time face to face learning, they cited why this return was a danger to students and staff.
“As we move forward in discussions relating to middle and high school level face-to-face learning there are challenges. It will be nearly impossible to socially distance thirty adult-sized bodies in a single classroom. The legionella bacteria remains in our water supply in some of the schools, leaving students and
staff fearful of washing their hands, toilet flushing, and access to potable water. Frankly, there should not be future plans until this contamination is fully remediated. This alone should warrant the closing of any public building,” Cynthia Sherman said.
In the first round of testing BPS buildings, Trace Analytical found 381 locations with legionella. The second round of testing, a month after, showed 218 locations that still have legionella.
The highest amounts of legionella in Groves were found in the locker rooms, bathrooms, and sinks. In just one of the samples, there were 70000.0 Total Legionella Colony Forming Units/ML in the Men’s Locker room in one shower.
Elin Betanzo, an environmental engineer who heads the consulting firm Safe Water Engineering and who played a critical role in exposing the lead-in-water poisoning in Flint, serves as a consultant for the district. Betanzo explained how to sample the water, how to examine the findings, and best practices for remediating the contaminants.
“If you don't flush out the plumbing system, after time goes by the chlorine that naturally exists in the flowing water system won't go through the pipes, creating an environment where living organisms grow. Microorganisms thrive on still water and that's where legionella grew, along with deposits of lead and copper forming,” Betanzo said.
Along with the growth of the legionella bacteria, Trace Analytical found 0.15 mcl of lead, the same mineral that caused the Flint water crisis, in the water at Groves and Seaholm.
As executive director of the Birmingham Education Association, Scott Warrow heard from many BPS staff anxious for both staff and students returning with these contaminations in the water.
“There is no safe drinking amount of lead period under Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. Even if the district may say that according to state law that it is allowable levels, according to federal environmental guidelines there are no allowable, safe, levels of drinking water that has been contaminated by lead,” Warrow said.
Lack of communication between district leaders and staff concerned Warrow the most.
“Only until students started coming back did the district start ramping up their efforts on the water it seems, and I'm not sure if there is a correlation or not,” Warrow said. “Staff have been in the building since the beginning of the school year, and we were not aware of the water situation or the full extent of the issue until just recently, so that went September, October, November, and December where we were continuing to ask questions and not getting responses, and that's a little bit unfortunate.”
Since BPS implemented water treatments on November 11 and closed off various water sources, including drinking fountains, the district decided to continue the plan to return to school. While returning, the district urges staff and students to bring water and hand sanitizer from home and to ensure they are wearing masks when washing hands at the school buildings. Betanzo collaborated on these recommendations but also emphasized that everyone, including students, should wear N95 masks while in the buildings.
“The highest risk of legionella is through inhalation and that's when you have little water droplets in the air. Because of this, they shut down the showers, which is the biggest risk of exposure, but there also can be some minor spray when you are washing your hands. It's very important to keep the water moving because it prevents other bacteria from forming. With this being the case we don’t really want to be telling anybody to stop washing their hands, especially since we need to for COVID-19 protections. Currently, we are all wearing masks for COVID-19, but along with wearing masks for COVID-19, a mask will protect you from inhaling any legionella in the air. For the best protection, the CDC recommends using the N95 masks to block out any bacteria,” Betanzo said.
With the closure of many buildings and schools in Michigan, the BPS district is likely one of the multiple school districts in Michigan with high levels of legionella, lead, and copper. This is because bacteria forms in still water and sediments, such as copper or lead, settle in it.
Michigan’s state government recommends, but does not require, that school water pipes be thoroughly flushed with fresh water at the end of summer vacation, a period of about 10 weeks. Many of the schools that are proposed to reopen have sat unused for 11 months. The dangers that can be remediated by the methodical flushing of pipes include the removal of bacteria, such as legionella, and lead, which can be leached from the pipes.
“If other schools or buildings were out as long as us they also face the risk of legionella. It's nothing unique to Birmingham that there would be legionella present. That bacteria is going to grow if you had any building that has been shut down since March, but the lead and copper are different, that's on the piping systems. We have talked about this at the Michigan Education Association for months, advising districts to flush the water systems before staff and students return to school because of the sort of problem we currently face. It's also a standard practice in the water industry to make that recommendation, so I would imagine if other school districts decide to test their water they are going to find it,” Warrow said.
Unlike legionella, lead rarely comes from outside water sources but rather from pipes and the fittings on pipes.
“In the BPS district, we are most concerned about schools having lead solders in their piping. Up until 2014 these materials could be marked lead-free but have up to 8% lead by weight; that's a lot of lead in your plumbing. Starting in 2014 that number became a lot lower, now faucets cannot have more than 0.25% lead by weight,” Betanzo said.
With the contamination of lead in the water, the BPS district has installed multiple water bottle stations which contain lead filters throughout all BPS schools. Although these water bottle stations have a lead filter, most of the drinking fountains within the district’s schools are not protected from lead.
“There are no independent fountains that are filtered. This is because, in many cases, they installed a bottle filler over an unfiltered fountain with a metal panel connecting the two, so if you don't know what you are looking at, the fountain and water bottle filler look like they are part of the same unit, but they are actually not,” Betanzo said.
Even before the buildings were closed due to Covid, this made it difficult for people in BPS buildings to know which fountains filtered lead. Individuals drinking from unfiltered fountains could have been putting themselves at risk of lead exposure without knowing it, even if lead was found in the fountain.
“If you look at the data, you will see a great variety in the levels of lead in BPS water; some levels are high, and some have none. When lead is released into water, it is sporadic. I remember when samples were collected at Beverly Elementary school back in 2017. When they took an initial sample, it was under 15 parts per billion, but when they resampled it two weeks later, it was 140 parts per billion. For a sample to reach 140 parts per billion is really high and nobody should be drinking that, especially children,” Betanzo said.
Betanzo said she asked the district for years to push the use of the water bottle stations.
“Whether information about the water bottle stations is released at the beginning of every school year or at the beginning of every break, I believe we should make an effort to make the lead danger known. During the fall of 2019, BPS schools had started to transition [to water bottle stations] but I'm not sure how pervasive the messages have been throughout the school district,” Betanzo said.
Betanzo noted that the legionella testing within the BPS district has been using a lab outside of the state, which causes a delay of at least two weeks to get the sample results back.
“After the district tested positive for legionella, Trace Analytical continued to do sampling throughout the buildings in the district, and in the last samples they were collected on December 13, and the data came back December 31,” Betanzo said.
According to the most recent set of data, the source of the legionella is most likely a robust biofilm within the pipes and faucets. A biofilm is a type of slime that coats the insides of plumbing and becomes the habitat for bacteria to form in great numbers. Normally biofilms are prevented from forming by the microdoses of chlorine that are put in the water naturally. Unfortunately, due to the nature of COVID-19 when Gov. Whitmer closed down the school buildings and the water was used much less it created a habitat for bacteria. This is because when the water in a system is not properly circulated the chlorine won't circulate and prevent biofilms from growing.
To counter the biofilms in the water, the district ordered a chlorine shock, adding extra chlorine to kill bacteria that have formed throughout the schools.
“If there is a thick biofilm growing in the pipes then a one-time shot of chlorine won't be enough to break down any biofilms or their cell walls,” Betanzo said.
To combat the biofilms and legionella inside the system, Betanzo suggests that each individual faucet should be scrubbed.
“For biofilms what we can do is take a very small scrub brush, like a bottle brush, and scrub the inside of the faucet and get some chlorine in there. By doing this it will address any of the biofilms that is right there in the faucet, but if there is an ongoing source of legionella and/or biofilms upstream in the plumbing then treating just the faucet just won't take care of it,” Betanzo said.
Betanzo suggested that the BPS district remove the aerators, small covers in the sink which spread out the water flow to aerators help minimize the aerosolization of the potentially deadly bacteria.
“An aerator’s job is to spread out the flow of the water and increase the pressure, but by doing this it also increases aerosols, little water droplets in the air. The greatest risk of catching legionella is from when you inhale it through aerosols in the air, because when it gets into your lungs, and that's when you get sick. So rather than the risk coming from drinking it, the main risk comes from inhalation of the bacteria.,” Betanzo said.
Similar to the sporadic release of lead in water, legionella can also be unpredictable, and require consistent monitoring.
“Just because legionella is not detected in a faucet it doesn't mean it does not exist there. The fickle thing about legionella is that you have to continue to test and flush, and so the CDC guidelines have a very strict setup for a testing program that the company and the district, unfortunately, decided not to pursue,” Warrow said.
Betanzo agrees with Warrow that a testing program needed to be implemented, especially since diagnosing legionnaires' disease is so difficult as the symptoms of the disease mimic Covid 19 along with other respiratory illnesses.
“We don't typically test for legionella exposure, and a lot of the times it will just be called pneumonia, and we will move on. The complicated part right now is that a lot of those symptoms of legionella exposure are similar to COVID-19 symptoms along with influenza symptoms,” Betanzo said. “So, even if someone had legionella it would be really hard now, compared to a few years ago, to confirm whether someone has contracted legionella, COVID-19, or pneumonia.”