Ingham County School Building Finds Lead in Water Supply

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) are collaborating with the Ingham County Health Department (ICHD) in response to the discovery of lead in the drinking water at a building within Okemos Public Schools.

Okemos Public Schools Central Montessori building, located at 4406 Okemos Road in Meridian Township, conducted water testing and found lead levels of 5 parts per billion (ppb) in one area and 9 ppb in another.

Although Michigan’s threshold for lead is 15 ppb, MDHHS emphasizes that no level of lead is considered safe in drinking water. Exposure to lead can result in brain and kidney damage, behavioral problems, and even death, among other health issues.

Superintendent John Hood of Okemos Public Schools explained that the lead was discovered as a result of recent legislation, which aims to safeguard Michigan children from lead-contaminated water.

“The Okemos Public Schools remain dedicated to the health and safety of our community, as well as clear and transparent communication. In that spirit, we are writing to update our community regarding recent water testing at OPM (Okemos Public Montessori) and district plans to implement Michigan’s Clean Water Drinking Act, known as the ‘Filter First Legislation,’ ahead of the state’s 2025-26 deadline,” Hood stated.

This legislation, signed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer in October, requires Michigan schools and childcare centers to install filtered faucets, establish a drinking water management plan, and conduct regular sampling and testing to ensure safe drinking water for children.

Following reports of discolored water in classrooms at Central Montessori, testing was ordered, resulting in the discovery of one sample with lead levels above the recommended threshold of 5 parts per billion, according to Hood. Additional testing identified two other faucets with lead measurements above the 5 ppb limit. The school district is following the recommendations provided by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and their testing company, Environmental Resources Group (ERG).

One of these recommendations included cleaning all faucet aerators, flushing the system, shutting off the affected fixtures, and posting signs indicating that the water is not safe for drinking. Bottled water will also continue to be provided throughout the building.

EGLE Strategic Communications Advisor Scott Dean confirmed that all hallway filtered fountains/bottle filling stations in the building have tested negative for lead. He also mentioned that the detections were limited to a few classroom faucets that have been taken out of service. The district already has an alternative water supply in place.

The Ingham County Health Department, through Health Communications Specialist Victoria Coykendall, also provided recommendations. These included offering lead tests to students and staff and advising parents to consult their primary care provider if they have concerns about their child’s health.

MDHHS Public Information Officer Lynn Sutfin stated that MDHHS and EGLE are working with the Ingham County Health Department to address the issue. MDHHS has suggested sharing health education information with families and has offered assistance with blood lead level testing if necessary. EGLE has been in contact with the school and the municipal water provider (ELMWSA) to provide technical guidance on flushing and sampling the drinking water at the school.

The Michigan Advance reached out to Superintendent Hood for a comment on these recommendations and whether they are being fully implemented, but there has been no response so far.

Given the Flint water crisis that began in 2014, concerns about lead in drinking water have understandably intensified. In Flint, the failure to implement anti-corrosion treatments resulted in lead leaching into the city’s drinking water, causing widespread health issues. While Okemos is not facing a situation of the same severity, the involvement of children magnifies the concern. According to MDHHS, children exposed to lead may experience lower IQ scores, decreased academic achievement, behavioral problems, attention-related disorders, and hearing and kidney function deterioration. The extent of exposure can be determined most reliably through a blood test.

This concern played a role in bipartisan legislation, also signed by Governor Whitmer in October, that guarantees lead screening for minors in Michigan. The legislation mandates lead poisoning testing for all children between 12 and 24 months of age, while still allowing parents to choose whether to opt out.

In addition to Flint, Benton Harbor and other Michigan communities, such as Hamtramck and Grand Rapids, have also dealt with significant lead poisoning. A 2021 study published in JAMA Pediatrics revealed that Michigan ranked third highest in the nation for children with elevated lead levels in their blood.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lead exposure is particularly hazardous for children under the age of six due to their rapid development. It is believed that recent construction at the Okemos Public Montessori at Central building resulted in lead solder used in joining copper pipes being released into the water supply. The building, which opened in 1923, is the oldest in the district.

[Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that students and staff at Okemos Public Montessori at Central “should receive a lead test.” However, Victoria Coykendall, health communications specialist with the Ingham County Health Department, says she misspoke and that the recommendation was that students and staff “could receive a lead test.”]

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