Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 17, 2024


Tap water is not drinkable in a majority of Baltimore City public schools.

Colorful murals ornament the halls of Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary School. A theater space complete with a stage and about 200 seats is on the first floor. On the second is a computer laboratory with rows of Mac desktops. For a Pre-K to fifth grade school, the facilities are comparatively modern and well-equipped.

A closer look however, reveals a peculiarity: a lack of water fountains. 

Instead, five-gallon water cooler dispensers with paper cups stacked on top are interspersed throughout the school. 

Out of about 170 elementary, middle and high schools in the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS), 11 have total water filtration systems and 12 have filtered water fountains. That leaves more than 140 schools with water coolers. 

The provision of bottled water stems from a 2002 order from the Baltimore City Commissioner of Health which mandated that BCPSS disable all drinking water fountains. Fountains were replaced with bottled water coolers and “Do not drink” signs were posted at hand washing sinks.

The problem is not treatment plants’ filtration of water, but the centuries-old lead pipes which deliver it. The lead lining can corrode and leech into the water; any traceable amount of lead is considered dangerous according to standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

In April 2019, Maryland’s General Assembly unanimously passed the Lead Reduction and Remediation Act which required schools to shut off contaminated water fountains, but it did not mandate that the schools must repair them. Restoring the service of a water fountain requires the handwritten approval of the Health Commissioner. 

Considering the potential risks of lead contamination, Dashea Evans, whose children attend Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary School, said in an interview with The News-Letter that she’s glad that water coolers are provided for her kids. 

“It’s good that the school has water dispensers, because some water has lead in it and I don’t want my kids to get sick,” Evans said. 

But Kellogg Schwab, the Abel Wolman professor in Water and Public Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, insists that the solution should be a temporary one. 

“When potable tap water is not available, the simplest knee-jerk reaction is to provide bottled water, but that is clearly not a sustainable approach,” he said in an interview with The News-Letter

Bottled water has been provided at BCPSS for generations. Rhyann Victor, who graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 2005, drank water from dispensers throughout high school. Her children now attend Thomas Jefferson Elementary and do not have access to potable tap water either. 

The biggest obstacle to reparations is cost. A 2018 investigation by The Washington Post determined that Baltimore City had a $3 billion maintenance backlog. 

To alleviate some of the burden, a partnership between BCPSS, the state, the Maryland Stadium Authority and Baltimore City led to the 21st Century School Building Program which allocates about $1 billion in funding to renovate City schools. 

In conjunction with the Capital Improvement Program, 23 schools — the only ones in the City with filtered tap water — were renovated and recently opened. Fourteen more are set to be renovated in the coming year. According to Ingrid Brailsford, the assistant director of Environment Compliance and Inspections for BCPSS, “point of entry” or “point of use” water filtration systems will be installed in all renovated buildings. 

Water availability at Hopkins

The plight of these public schools is a sharp contrast to the situation on the University’s Homewood campus, where students enjoy access to clean and accessible tap water and bottle refill stations that help the University accomplish its sustainability goals. The Take Back the Tap initiative, which began in 2013, was founded with this in mind. The multi-year effort involved students who were a part of the initiative, as well as the Office of Sustainability and Plant Operations at Hopkins. 

The result was over 100 gooseneck bottle fillers or bottle filling stations at water fountains all across campus. Expansions are still underway. Hopkins Dining plans to add more bottle filling stations throughout campus. David Ashwood, senior director of Plant Operations wrote in an email to The News-Letter that there are also plans to make a map of all the water refill stations on campus so that students can locate them more easily. 

“In addition to this original effort, we’re currently cataloging water filling stations in GIS to display on more easy-to-use maps, so students know where they are located,” Ashwood wrote. 

Despite these great lengths to promote the use of these refill stations, many students remain skeptical of the quality of water that drips from Hopkins taps.

However, in reviewing the specifications of these bottle filling stations, it seems that there is little cause for concern. In addition to monitoring how many water bottles students remove from the environment by refilling at the pumps, the stations, manufactured by Elkay, include a traffic light system to indicate the need for filter replacement. 

According to the product description, “The 3,000-gallon filter is certified to NSF 42 and 53 for lead, Class 1 particulate, chlorine, taste and odor reduction.” 

According to the National Sanitation Foundation, NSF 42 and 53 are two methods of water filtration. NSF 42 means that “Filters are certified to reduce aesthetic impurities such as chlorine and taste/odor. These can be point-of-use (under the sink, water pitcher...) or point-of-entry (whole house) treatment systems.” 

NSF 53 filters, on the other hand, “are certified to reduce a contaminant with a health effect. Health effects are set in this standard as regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Health Canada. Both standards 42 and 53 cover adsorption/filtration which is a process that occurs when liquid, gas or dissolved/suspended matter adheres to the surface of, or in the pores of, an adsorbent media. Carbon filters are an example of this type of product.” 

So at least at with these sources, the water is filtered for many of the contaminants that cause problems in BCPSS. Even at older water fountains, like ones found in Remsen Hall, there is little cause for concern when it comes to the build up of limescale. Typically, such deposits might only contribute to the hardness of the water. According to the World Health Organization, there are no known adverse health effects of hard water. 

Additionally, if Hopkins affiliates are curious about the state of any water fountain, they can submit a Service Request for Facilities and Real Estate. 

“We rely on students, faculty and staff to notify us if there’s a location that would be suited for a filling station, or if one needs maintenance,” Ashwood wrote. 

Depending on a school's financial resources, water filtration stations could be a significant burden. The market price listed on Elkay’s website for a standard bottle refill station with a water fountain attachment is $1,067.19. If a set of schools sought to install 100 of these units, the starting rate would be over $100,000. 

According to Ashwood, the installation costs vary depending on the kind of installation that needs to be done. If drinking fountains are retrofitted to add a filling station, then it can cost about $500. Complete replacements or new installations can range up to $5,000.

Historical origins of disparate water accessibility 

The roots of the lack of filtered tap water in City public schools lie deep. 

“How did we end up in a situation where kids are going to schools where there isn’t potable tap water, much less heating, cooling and proper technological resources? These issues are tied to many decades of racist public policy,” Corey Gaber said in an interview with The News-Letter

Gaber, an elementary school vice president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, was referring to the City’s history of redlining. 

In the early 1900s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) classified areas in cities according to their credit risk. The result was residential security maps. 

Low-risk areas were colored green on a map and high-risk areas were red, hence the term “redlining.” On the surface, the classification was based on law and economic data, but there were racial undertones: Areas with high proportions of black people were more likely to be labeled “high-risk.” According to a report from the Brookings Institution, the subsequent “white flight” of white immigrants to the suburbs effectively isolated black residents to areas with low investment. 

The National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that low levels of investment and economic segregation persist in the once-redlined areas today. 

Baltimore City and Prince George’s, two counties which are majority black and were disproportionately affected by redlining, are currently two of Maryland’s least funded school districts. 

“The lack of accessibility to filtered tap water is not an accident,” Gaber said. “This happened because of decades of under investment.”

The financial disparities that exist between Hopkins, a private institution, and BCPSS can be examined even more closely. 

According to the National Association of College and University Business Officers, as of 2019, Hopkins has a $6.2 billion endowment. And, according to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s tool “How Colleges Spend Money,” in 2016, Hopkins spent over $24,000 per student in administrative costs and over $100,000 per student in instructional costs. 

The Baltimore City Schools website reports that the 2018-19 budget for all public schools in the city was $1.31 billion, around 20 percent of Hopkins endowment. This money is then allocated to schools based upon their needs.

According to the U.S. Census, out of the 100 largest school systems in the United States, the Baltimore City Public School system had the third highest spending per pupil in 2017, coming in at $16,184. 

While an official budget for water system management could not be obtained, The News-Letter obtained a financial statement that showed that the University has over $2 million in property assets and the net cash flow used for purchases of property and equipment was $237,888. 

The University’s recurring investments in property and equipment came out to a net of $5,175,424 overall, with over $4 million of that budget being dedicated to “Equipment” and “Buildings & leasehold improvements.” These are ball park figures under which we assume that maintenance of piping and other water infrastructure is likely to fall. 

An email from the BCPSS Environmental Compliance and Inspections department to The News-Letter stated that they have budgeted $845,000 for bottled water for the upcoming fiscal year. 

The investment may seem reasonable compared to the billions, or perhaps trillions — according to Bloomberg Professor Kellogg Schwab — of dollars that need to be invested to replace the lead pipes. 

But at the same time, Gaber notes that the money can be funneled to address the students’ other needs.

“They are paying for a resource that should be free. That money could be used to fund other projects for students,” he said.

Non-financial costs of a lack of filtered tap water

The logistics of replacing and ordering the water containers requires extra effort and planning from the teachers and school secretaries. 

When the dispensers are empty, it is the responsibility of teachers to replace it. Often that requires carrying the new heavy five-gallon container up stairs. 

Eillen Martinez, a Hopkins undergrad who volunteers at Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School, noticed a sign that says “Water cooler in here” outside the classroom where she tutors. Martinez believes that the cooler may be the only one on the floor. 

“I imagine the teacher has to work through disruptions that may occur if students are entering the classroom for water during class time,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter

Aside from financial and procedural costs, drinking bottled water means that the students are forgoing health benefits of drinking tap water. 

Community water fluoridation is proven to reduce dental caries in children and adults, which has long-term economic and health implications. The success of fluoridation even prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to name community water fluoridation one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th century. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 0.7 milligrams per liter of fluoride in drinking water. Although the tap water in Baltimore City meets this benchmark, students cannot reap the benefits of cavity prevention. 

The effects of good, or bad, dental health in childhood manifest later in life. In 2016, the DentaQuest Institute evaluated the rate of Emergency Department (ED) visits for chronic dental conditions among adults enrolled in Medicaid in Maryland. Rates were highest in Baltimore City and rural counties of the eastern shore of Maryland.

Given the proven benefits, the American Dental Association’s 2020 National Children’s Dental Health Month campaign slogan was “Fluoride in water prevents cavities! Get it from the tap!” 

While schools in Carroll County in Maryland celebrated and promoted the campaign, those in Baltimore City did not. 

Some effects of a lack of tap water are less concrete. Lillie Shelton, a junior studying Materials Science and Engineering, studied in an underfunded school district — where at one point curtains replaced wooden doors as entrances to classrooms — before she came to Hopkins. 

“When you see that no one cares to put real, good water in your school, it instills an idea in your mind that you are less than. Even though it might not be at the forefront, it is always at the back of your head,” Shelton said. 

Corey Gaber, who is also a sixth grade English teacher, saw those feelings surface when he took his students to play lacrosse games in private schools and schools in Baltimore County. 

“When they see what those facilities are like and what those kids have access to, the juxtaposition is really upsetting,” Gaber said. 

In addition to the health implications of lacking access to potable tap water, purchasing bottled water instead of drinking from the tap has a large environmental impact. While the short term problem of needing clean water to drink is resolved by bottled water use, the enormous amount of plastic waste produced by regular bottled water use threatens the future existence of BCPSS students. 

To better understand these environmental consequences, The News-Letter spoke with junior Keelin Reilly, president of Students for Environmental Action (SEA) an independent student organization which promotes student-inspired projects like native plant gardens and sustainable fashion shows. 

When asked about the environmental downfalls of Baltimore City Public Schools’ lead contamination solution, Reilly noted the sheer amount of waste produced by bottled water use.

“All that plastic will not degrade and a lot of it will not make its way to recycling facilities. That’s a huge amount of waste going into our landfills,” Reilly said. 

The waste, however, is not the only consequence of bottled water use. 

“Bottled water takes energy to bottle and ship across the country, or to wherever it is being consumed,” he said.

While Reilly acknowledges that bottled water is a sensible solution to compromised water systems, he stressed that it doesn’t have to meet a special standard of purity.

“Bottled water doesn’t have any special policies or limitations on it,” he said. “The contamination limits for lead, arsenic, any of these environmental pollutants apply across the board the same to tap water as it is to bottled water.” 

Additionally, Senior Director of Plant Operations David Ashwood wrote in an email to The News-Letter that Hopkins students have little reason to be concerned about the potability of water that comes from filtration stations or taps around campus. 

“The University relies on Baltimore City’s municipal water supply program of water monitoring and reporting under the Safety Drinking Water Act to provide potable water,” he wrote. “The Office of Health Safety and Environment will respond to reports of or questions concerning potentially contaminated water. They will conduct testing whenever conditions warrant that level of response.”

While Reilly agrees that there is no reason for Hopkins students to believe the water supply is contaminated, he notes that for the especially cynical, personal water testing methods are available. 

“If you’re really, really curious there are free water testing kits you can use,” Reilly said. “Home Depot often gives them away. They’ll send it to a lab and test it for contaminants.”

Given the disparities in water quality access, Reilly emphasized that Hopkins students and others with access to potable tap water have a responsibility to reduce their collective environmental impact by reaching for the tap, instead of single use bottles.

“Access to clean water is a human right. So often it becomes a privilege in some areas, and that’s always so terrible to see,” he said. “We enjoy access to clean water. We should use that right fully by using the tap, using water fountains and reducing our own environmental impact by saying no to single use plastic bottles.” 

The future for tap water in BCPSS

The City is considering other alternatives to bottled water. The school system is in the midst of a pilot program testing EcoWater Systems LLC lead filters. The results from the 2018-2019 implementation are “passable” according to an email to The News-Letter from the assistant director of BCPSS  Environment Compliance and Inspections department. 

However, the implementation of the filters will only be decided when the pilot program ends in 2021. 

While the point-of-use filtration systems are a preferable alternative to bottled water, Bloomberg Professor Schwab warned that in addition to the cost of installing the filtration unit, the costs of maintenance and the implementation of supply and operations management plan have to be taken into account. 

Regardless, Schwab emphasized the importance of choosing filtration systems that are geared toward student use. 

“Having human behavior integrated into what will meet the needs of the population, in this case young children, should be considered in whatever system is put forward,” he said. “Thinking about a user-centered design is as important as the unit itself.” 

Otherwise, the schoolchildren may misuse the system or not use its full capacity. 

Corey Gaber believes that Hopkins and similar institutions have a responsibility to offset some of the financial burden that BCPSS face. 

“Unbelievably wealthy institutions are let off the hook from giving money that could potentially go to fixing the issue. Wealthy institutions like Hopkins have a lot to offer to mediate the situation,” he said. 

Gaber noted that in an effort to secure millions of dollars of funding for BCPSS, the Baltimore Teacher’s Union is strongly advocating for the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future bill

Schwab, however, believes that the issue is more complex and that the burden is better spread across multiple entities.

“There’s no easy solution to this issue that is necessarily going to be driven by a single university simply because they have financial resources,” he said. “There may be other strategic ways of leveraging the issue for other businesses to be involved so that it does not have to be just one entity stepping up.”

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