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Detroit Shuts Off Drinking Water In Schools Just As Classes Are Set To Start

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Michigan, a crisis that left the city of Flint's water supply tainted with lead is still fresh in people's minds. Now the state's biggest city, Detroit, is facing its own water crisis, one centered on the public school system. Quinn Klinefelter of member station WDET reports.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: I'm standing by the Detroit School of Arts. It's part of the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The school system is ready to welcome students back after Labor Day. But for some there will be a distinct difference - all the drinking water in the school buildings will be turned off.

NIKOLAI VITTI: Residue of copper or lead may be infiltrating the water.

KLINEFELTER: District superintendent Nikolai Vitti says testing found that residue in 16 of 24 Detroit public school buildings. So this week, he decided to turn off the drinking water in all of the school buildings - more than a hundred of them - until the source of the problem could be identified.

VITTI: Students will still be able to clean their hands. We are going to put up do not drink signs in the bathroom.

KLINEFELTER: The district is also supplying bottled drinking water to the schools. For some, that echoes the bottled water deliveries made to residents in Flint after its water supply became contaminated with lead. Flint pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, one of the first to discover elevated levels of lead in children there, says Detroit officials are taking the right steps.

MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: We do have lead in our water. And we do have lead in our water in our schools not only in Flint but all over the state and all over this nation.

KLINEFELTER: Officials with the Great Lakes Water Authority where the schools' water comes from stressed that their supply is safe. They believe the problem lies in the school buildings' plumbing. Detroit is not alone. In the past, schools from California to New York have found similar problems and shut off drinking water. Mona Hanna-Attisha says the situation cries for more oversight.

HANNA-ATTISHA: And school districts are doing this work on their own above and beyond what they have to do. So there is a need for stronger regulations to protect our children.

KLINEFELTER: Detroit school officials say they are still trying to pinpoint the precise locations causing the lead contamination. And they are not sure just how much it will cost to fix it. A recent assessment of Detroit public school buildings found it would take half a billion dollars just to repair things like roofs and heating systems. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "BOOGIE NO. 69") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.