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This program offers free water testing for tribal schools in the Great Lakes region

an office building behind trees. a sign up front says "GREAT LAKES INTER-TRIBAL COUNCIL, INC. BUILDING"
Courtesy of Jacob Riemer
The GLITEC drinking water program is housed at the center's office in Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin.

Tribal communities have long faced barriers to clean drinking water and testing.

The Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Epidemiology Center, based in Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, aims to help tribal schools, childcare centers and after-school programs across the Great Lakes region ensure their water is safe. Through its free drinking water testing program, the center, known as GLITEC, offers testing for lead, PFAS and heavy metals such as arsenic and strontium. The program also helps schools interpret the results and navigate remediation if contaminants are found.

GLITEC is encouraging schools to take advantage of the free testing to protect children, who are more vulnerable to contaminants in drinking water, and others who use the educational facilities. These contaminants are tied to serious health issues. There is no safe level of lead exposure, which is linked to learning disabilities and damage to the nervous system. For facilities that participate in lead testing, GLITEC offers an additional incentive of up to $1,500.

Exposure to heavy metals can cause liver or kidney damage, while manufactured PFAS chemicals, used widely in industry and consumer products, may lead to health effects such as developmental delays in children, lower immune function and increased risk for some cancers.

Tackling lead in drinking water has been a priority of the Biden administration’s, and recent federal legislation — the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — has created new funding streams to help pay for lead remediation. GLITEC is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take advantage of these funds and hopes to offer remediation services in the future.

GLITEC public health specialist Jacob Riemer serves as the project coordinator of the drinking water testing program — which is looking to expand to more schools.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

a young white man with long brown hair stands at a sink. he wears gloves and smiles as he writes a label on a bottle of water
Courtesy of Jacob Riemer
GLITEC public health specialist Jacob Riemer labels a drinking water sample.

Tell me about the center’s drinking water testing program. Who is it serving? And what are your big goals? 

We serve the 34 federally recognized tribes and four urban Indian communities across Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Chicago, Illinois. For GLITEC’s free drinking water testing program, it’s the organization's goal to expand testing efforts to help ensure safe water quality for tribal youth by testing facilities for PFAS, lead and other heavy metals. We primarily do this through general education, testing efforts, of course, and establishing safe water routine practices. And then, if there are positive results, we also explore remediation resources, if that's necessary.

Can you talk about any health disparities associated with tribal populations and the presence of these contaminants in their drinking water?

Health disparities associated with tribal populations in drinking water contamination are very similar to the health disparities that these communities face in general. Such as access to health care, poverty, short staffing in the workforce, funding availability, transportation, outdated water infrastructure and piping and access to testing.

How expensive can these tests be? What’s the burden that GLITEC is trying to help alleviate for some of these facilities? 

We wanted to make this program as accessible as possible. That's where the free testing comes in. And then we wanted to offer that incentive, up to $1,500 per facility. Because currently, we don't have any direct funding that we can use for [lead] remediation. We're exploring that.

But with this $1,500 incentive, that's a good start for any minor remediation that is needed — some faucet fixtures, new aerators, things of that sort.

It's very easy to want to get your water tested. But when it comes to pricing, it can be [in]accessible and tough to get scheduled and find the money for it. So for lead testing, I would say that, in general, it's probably around $60-80, depending on how many faucets are tested within that facility. It depends on the size of the facility. Sometimes only three samples are needed, maybe a couple of water fountains and one faucet used for cooking and drinking water. Those are what we prioritize — any faucet that's used for drinking or cooking.

With PFAS, … that price is anywhere from $380-420. That's just one sample per facility, which is usually all that's needed. Because that sample is generally just that water source versus [with] lead and heavy metals, you want to ensure that you're testing all faucets that are used for drinking and cooking. Because sometimes those faucets can be the direct cause of the contamination. Those contaminants aren't always found in every faucet.

Does it feel like the mood around this program has shifted at all with the increased attention from the Biden administration on addressing lead in drinking water?

It sure seems like it, at least on a local level. We've had this program since 2021. But up until last year, in March, it just took a lot of time to get the background work going and lay the foundation for the program. A big part of our program is education. We were able to put out a couple of great educational materials, such as an online e-learning course, which helps facilities learn more about lead, the importance of testing, [what] that process looks [like], and how to implement routine practices to ensure continued safe drinking water.

It has been a work in progress. Initially, we weren't getting a ton of facilities signed up. But based off of feedback and further conversation, I feel like we were able to make this program more accessible. I would say definitely, within the last six months or so, just with us making our program more accessible, we've definitely seen an increase in interest.

What has it been like for you to go into the field and collect those samples? What's the reaction that you're getting from some of the school administrators when you're doing that work?

I love it. I love face-to-face interaction, I love getting to learn from others.

It's some early mornings. When it comes to lead testing and heavy metals, it's beneficial to have — at least for the initial results, the first testing — you want the pipes to be unused for about eight to 18 hours. We usually try to get in these facilities before they open. So, you know, a lot of facilities open at seven, staff is coming in at seven, the youths are coming in at eight. I'm fortunate to be a morning person. I feel bad for the contact person who lets me into the facility.

Because you're showing up at what, like 5 a.m.? 

Yeah, exactly. But it has been really positive feedback. These facilities are very passionate about keeping the kids safe and ensuring that they have safe, quality water. So it's been good. Even though it's been early mornings, everybody that I've worked with has been excited letting us in and has been extremely helpful throughout the whole process.

What options do schools have for remediation if they decide that that's what they need? 

There's definitely different options depending on the results that are found. Initially, with our process, if any results come back over the state or federal maximum contaminant level, or a public health advisory level, then we work with the facility to make sure that the water source is no longer used until that issue is addressed.

If this is the case, for lead or heavy metals, at least, the faucet aerators get cleaned, the water gets flushed. Then we do follow-up sampling to see if that's resolved the issue. I would say more often than not, that process does resolve the problem. Usually it just comes down to cleaning the filter, cleaning the aerator. Which is great, that's very cost-effective, it's very easy to do. And that's part of our routine practices, you know: Let's get on a schedule to make sure that these things are done routinely, so the water is free from lead and heavy metals.

But if that does not fix the problem, then additional testing is needed to discover the source of the contamination. Because sometimes remediation may be needed, such as replacing faucets and pipes, or maybe it has to be explored further into the whole water system.

As far as remediation goes, unfortunately, we can't offer direct remediation assistance. But we are actively working on that and we hope that changes soon.

Are schools required to communicate the results with families? 

As far as our program, it is strongly, strongly encouraged. Right off the bat, that's something that we communicate that is important to do.

We haven't had any issues with that not being done. Schools are happy to communicate those results with the community and parents, and we help with that process as well.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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