Chicago Public Schools has spent at least $1 million on testing for lead in the water at more than half of its schools, and on fixing some of the problems that turned up, officials said Wednesday.
Remediation work continues on the 327 public elementary schools that were tested before summer break. Of the 184 fixtures and faucets that had a problematic sample, at least 120 have been fixed or replaced and put back into service, facilities chief Jason Kierna told the City Council’s Education Committee.
But so far, the city’s Department of Public Health won’t say exactly how many children tested for elevated levels of lead in their blood were among those who attend any of the 113 schools that were found to have at least one problematic fixture.
Public health commissioner Dr. Julie Morita would say only that the number is “very, very small.” A city spokeswoman could not immediately provide that number.
CPS began testing schools in April, citing concerns stemming from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and started with schools that have a cooking kitchen, pre-K program or building erected before 1986. Testing at the rest of the district’s 500-plus school buildings will begin again on Sept. 13, after school buildings are in full use again.
The end goal for the schools system is to “remediate the device, get it back in service with safe drinking water for children,” Kierna told aldermen.
About 120 have been replaced or repaired, and then put through another round of testing that looks at five water samples taken from fixtures that are used for drinking or cooking, or are in a pre-kindergarten program, given the greater risk lead poses to very small children. Twelve fixtures, including eight rarely used kitchen sinks, were removed altogether, and four more fixtures will be removed, CPS said.
An additional 29 schools are going to require more in-depth work, such as plumbing remediation, Kierna said.
Costs have not been finalized because not all schools have been tested, let alone repaired, but the broke school district has already spent “north of about $1 million,” Kierna said. The district’s capital budget also includes $5.7 million for emergency plumbing repairs in schools that need lead abatement.
Toilets and washroom sinks are not being tested, he said.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) asked Kierna about plans to keep the testing going when this year’s round has concluded, especially at schools that show some lead in their water but not enough to trigger federal standards.
“I think this is the issue: “We don’t want to see this go away just because we did the testing, and then in a year or two say, ‘Oh well, we did our part,’ ” Waguespack said.
Kierna said such plans were in the works, with some money identified in the capital budget.
Illinois Environmental Council executive director Jen Walling noted that there are no safe amounts of lead in drinking water — 15 parts per billion is the measure the Environmental Protection Agency requires for action — but praised the city overall for its response, saying other school districts should follow Chicago’s lead on testing schools and notifying the public about results.