Clean water is a human right
“Clean water is a human right!” This is the chant Nia Nunn decided to teach young Ithacans when it was announced in January 2016 that the water, especially in the Ithaca City School District’s more rural schools, had dangerous amounts of lead particles. At Caroline Elementary School, 56 percent of the building’s water sources are above the EPA-deemed level at which remedial action is expected. Nunn added, laughing, how afraid her father, active community member Fe Nunn, was that her not-so-subtle act of rebellious education would get her into trouble.
Inability to access clean water doesn’t sound like something that would happen here in Ithaca. That’s a struggle of the enigmatic Africa we learn about in elementary school, modern-day military dysentery and poor inner cities with dark brown water spurting out of their faucets. They all seem worlds away. But even in a community like ours, quick to call Flint’s toxic water a human rights abuse, kids have been using toxic water in their public schools for months.
The World Health Organization explains that lead has no known benefit for any humans, but can affect children particularly negatively. “Lead accumulates in the bones and lead poisoning may be diagnosed from a blue line around the gums. Lead is especially harmful to the developing brains of fetuses and young children and to pregnant women … High blood lead levels in children can cause consequences which may be irreversible including learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and mental retardation.” Having lead abundantly present in our schools’ water, of all places, is a particularly painful irony due to its harmful impacts on children’s brains and learning abilities.
Understandably, parents were enraged as soon as they found out about the state of the water. But they were even more upset when they learned that some officials in the district had known since August 2015 — parents weren’t informed until January 2016.
Nunn is an assistant professor of education at Ithaca College, a former school psychologist at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School in downtown Ithaca, as well as an Ithaca native who attended that same elementary school and whose two younger sons go there now. These intersecting identities create her passion for the safety of Ithaca’s youngest residents, a group she universally calls “our babies.”
“Before I saw it in the paper, people were talking,” she said. “I was at a community event and some folks were brainstorming. In fact, it was kind of immediately presented as critiquing and challenging, but also making fun of the district, with all the money that’s been spent on Chromebooks.” Currently, every fourth through 12th grader in the Ithaca Central School District, or ICSD, has their own Google Chromebook laptop provided by the district. “Meanwhile, our babies and their basic human rights are being violated,” Nunn continues.
The Ithaca Voice has been closely reporting parents’ and educators’ reactions at school meetings, particularly at Newfield Central School and Caroline Elementary Schools, where the lead content has been marked the highest. One parent with a daughter at Caroline Elementary School spoke at a public meeting on Feb. 10, upset that her daughter had been drinking water from “Room 27, which tested at 120 parts per billion in August. Re-testing in January showed that the water from the drinking fountain was at 21 ppb. The Tompkins County Health Department has said that the ‘action level’ is 15 ppb.” (“Action level,” as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “the level of concentration of a harmful or toxic substance or contaminant … that when exceeded is considered sufficient to warrant regulatory or remedial action.”)
Rebecca Sue Schillenback was one of these parents. She is the mother of a pre-Kindergarten student and second grade student at Caroline Elementary School, and said her husband attended the initial meeting quoted above. Like many other parents have articulated in local media, she was surprised to hear about this situation now since testing had been done six months previously and results were not reported to parents.
Due to issues with the initial testing, the water was re-tested in January, which is when parents were finally informed. The most recent updated results were released mid-February 2016. According to the Ithaca Voice, “The expanded report includes classroom sinks that tested at 940,; 1,000,; 2,200 and 5,000 ppb. 5,000 ppb is the level at which the EPA considers water to be ‘toxic waste,’ according to a Washington Post report.”
These results led the community to outrage that their children could be washing their hands (and potentially drinking) from a claimed toxic waste source. But still, these results are in question, as it has been claimed that the school didn’t follow typical processes immediately before the testing.
Elizabeth Cameron, the director of environmental health for the Tompkins County Health Department, noted this occurrence in a letter published by the Ithaca Voice on March 3. “Cameron notes that the testers shut off the water system in Caroline the night before the test. She calls this a ‘significant departure’ from the usual testing procedures. She also notes that there was a leak in the Caroline water system that may have depressurized the system,” the paper stated. It seems incredibly negligent that the district would not follow proper testing procedure considering that they had already had the results of the previous testing put into question.
Fear for their children’s safety has brought the parents at Caroline Elementary together, Schillenback said.
She elaborated: “[Parents] have been very involved as much as we can. A group of concerned parents got together right away, it might have been the week after or the weekend after the initial meeting where the parents were informed of what happened. And that was a pretty contentious meeting and feelings were running very high.” She said that the “frenzy” being created by local media didn’t help matters and added to parents’ stress.
Schillenback also noted links between what’s happening in Ithaca and what’s happening in Flint, Michigan. Although the people of Flint have been struggling with their water since early 2014, it wasn’t until this fall that their crisis made national news.
Buzzsaw contributing writer Tyla Pink summed this up in our February issue: “According to The Huffington Post, the issue started after Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder switched residents from their water source in Lake Huron, the third largest body of fresh water in the world, to the Flint River in order to cut costs. Since that move, residents have been exposed to discolored, putrid-smelling water with dangerously high levels of lead.”
Schillenback connected Flint to Ithaca from a historical perspective.
“I think that this aging infrastructure has been shown to be linked with contaminants that are found in water and it shouldn’t be surprising to us — infrastructure needs to be maintained,” she said. “It’s a real opportunity for learning for everyone … This is a reminder that clean water should not be taken for granted. Everyone needs to collectively and individually preserve something that is necessary for life.”
Nunn, however, broadened the connection between the two water sources, saying that it’s not just about infrastructure, but the systemic social structures that lie beneath: namely, environmental classism and racism.
“Here are two fairly low-income poor white communities,” she said. “And it wasn’t until the more wealthy white parents and families took a stand and said, ‘No. This is absolutely not okay.’ But had they not done that, then what?”
These concepts fall under the umbrella of environmental justice. Robert L. Copeland, Jr., associate professor and director of informatics in the Department of Pharmacology at Howard University, wrote about this in his presentation “Environmental Justice? Not in my backyard,” the slides of which are on a collaborative governmental website for the National Library of Medicine.
“Environmental justice has been broadly defined as ‘the pursuit of equal justice and equal protection under the law for all environmental statutes and regulations without discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and/or socioeconomic status’ and also as one of four related concepts including environmental equity, environmental racism, and environmental classism,” the presentation states.
Environmental classism, according to Nunn, is the aspect of environmental justice that is particularly present in Ithaca.
Nunn said: “It’s the environmental -isms. And we dealt with this at [Beverly J. Martin Elementary School.] There was tar — there was this disgusting tar under the ground that our babies were breathing at school. And how long did it take us to do something about it? Environmental racism and classism are central to the conversation, and a lot of people are afraid to go there.”
Schillenback’s statements were less political, but she had similar goals. “One of [parents’ priorities] is creating a positive learning environment and community, [asking] ‘So how do we want to handle this crisis together in solidarity?’”
That solidarity is being an Ithacan, regardless of socioeconomic status; being an environmentalist, in whatever form that make take; and being a parent of children who are being exposed to toxins by their own public schools.
“The strategy is empowering kids and families, and being explicit about their basic human right: having clean water in schools,” Nunn said. “And I don’t know if anyone has had that explicit conversation [with the kids] yet.”
Alexa Salvato is a junior journalism major who can’t believe that shit like this still happens. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.