Young people are the most at risk for lead contamination; lead can cause lifelong developmental problems for kids who are exposed to it. And there are concerns about the possibility of lead in New Orleans’ drinking water, including in the city’s schools. After years of delay by the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) to install water filters, one seventh-grader is taking matters into his own hands.
Bernard "Berr" Voss Potts is 13. He’s a student at Homer Plessy Community School. And he has a podcast episode about his investigation into whether there is lead in his school’s drinking water. WWNO’s Jess Clark sat down with Voss-Potts to talk about his findings.
Below is a Q&A based on their conversation. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: Your class is participating in the NPR Podcast challenge, and your teacher gave you the option of really exploring any subject in New Orleans for your episode. Why did you chose to focus on lead in school drinking water?
I watched a Nova on it a week before. So it was fresh in my mind and I wanted to explore it a little bit more.
Q: Tell us what you did for your podcast.
We got the lead test kit to test the water. It's kind of like a strip, a yellow strip that you put in two droplets of water, wait for ten minutes. There's two lines, if the second line is darker, or if both lines are dark, it means that it's positive, which means their might be dangerous amounts of lead. For ours both lines were dark. And so our teacher wanted to play it safe.
Q: What went through your mind when your teacher said there could be dangerous amounts of lead in your school's water based on the test?
I was a little surprised but not too surprised because there's construction down the street, which could rattle some lead into it. And then it's an old school.
Q: Are you concerned about your health?
Yeah, because we've been drinking the water for two years.
Q: What did the school do after you showed them the results?
The principal, Meghan Raychauduri, immediately contacted the school district. And they said they would send people on Monday to put filters in. And then Ms. Meghan sent a staff member to get $100 worth of bottled water. But they haven't installed the filters yet because they said the water pressure was too low, so they had to bring a booster pump. (OPSB says it installed the filters Thursday morning.)
Q: Did you talk with anyone at the Orleans Parish School Board for your story?
No. I tried to interview our school superintendent Henderson Lewis. But I didn't get a response at all. And then I emailed communications. They asked me to put in a request for public records. I haven't been able to do that yet.
Q: If you could talk with superintendent Henderson Lewis right now, is there anything you would want to ask him, or tell him?
Probably just like why didn't they test the water when we first moved in. And why didn't they put filters in all the other schools, because they just keep delaying it.
Background on OPSB and Lead in Schools
OPSB says it installed filters at Home Plessy Thursday morning, and that they've installed lead filters at 36 schools out of the 88 schools they oversee on OPSB-owned properties. The school board says it plans to have filters installed in all 88 schools by the fall of 2019.
The school board promised in 2016 to "proactively" test schools' drinking water for lead, in the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Mich. As reported by The Lens, that plan was scrapped and tests were never done. Then in 2017 OPSB said it would start installing water filters. About a year later, contractors began the installations.
The district points to a state test at one New Orleans school, Live Oak Elementary, showing lead at levels the state considers safe. The American Association of Pediatrics says there is no safe level of lead exposure for children.
For more in-depth reporting on concerns about lead in New Orleans schools, check out this reporting from The Lens.