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Milwaukee Public Schools hopeful new filters will help keep drinking water safe

Zurn Elkay Water Solutions announced $2.2M donation to MPS

A student at Starms Early Childhood fills his water bottle at a filtered station
A student at Starms Early Childhood fills his water bottle at a filtered station on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023. Evan Casey/WPR

Milwaukee Public Schools is hopeful a donation from a local company will help keep its drinking water safe for students and staff.

Milwaukee-based Zurn Elkay Water Solutions donated $2.2 million dollars in water filtration systems that will be installed throughout the district to help keep drinking water safe and reduce the level of lead in the water, an issue that the city has been dealing with for years. This summer, MPS installed nearly 600 new Elkay filtered bottle filling stations and converted 2,500 existing filling stations and drinking fountains to the Elkay filtration system.

“These filters ensure that water consumed by MPS students, our staff, our families and community members remain safe for drinking,” MPS superintendent Dr. Keith Posley said at a press event Monday.

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Regina Navejar, principal of Starms Early Childhood, said there are now five Zurn Elkay bottle filling stations available for students to use at the school, which was built in 1892.

“Water is fundamental to life, and when we walk into the building and we see a state-of-the-art water filtration unit, it makes us feel good,” Navejar said.

In a press release, Zurn Elkay Water Solutions said the drinking fountains and bottle filling stations are tested and certified to reduce lead and other contaminants found in water. MPS plans to install around 120 more filtered bottle stations across the district soon.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson helps a student at Starms Early Childhood fill up a water bottle
Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson (second from left) helps a student at Starms Early Childhood fill up a water bottle. Evan Casey/WPR

In 2016, MPS announced that 6 percent of the drinking fountains and other water sources across the district had elevated lead levels. That means those water sources tested above the U.S. Centers for Disease Control standard of 15 parts per billion for lead.

Lead exposure in paint, soil, air or water can seriously harm a child’s health and can lead to brain damage, slowed growth and learning and behavior problems, according to the CDC. Wisconsin Watch previously reported that 9,600 Wisconsin children younger than 16 were poisoned by lead between 2018 and 2020. Of lead-poisoned children in the state, nearly two-thirds live in Milwaukee County.

Michelle Lenski, the manager of design and construction at MPS, said the district had already installed some water filters after the 2016 lead findings were announced. But she said the new filters will allow the district to continue those efforts to ensure “safe water.”

“The filters do work to reduce and eliminate the incidents of lead in the water,” Lenski said.

Craig Wentworth, the environmental health inspector at Milwaukee Public Schools, said the filters ensured the 6 percent of drinking sources that had elevated lead levels in 2016 were now safe. But he also said Monday the district hasn’t done any testing for lead since 2019 and had no future plans to do so.

In 2022, it was announced that Wisconsin would receive around $250 million over the next five years from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to replace lead water service lines across the state. There are around 170,000 lead service lines in communities statewide, and the majority are in Milwaukee.

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