Clean, safe drinking water is a fundamental necessity for the health and well-being of any community, especially in schools and childcare centers where our youth spend a significant portion of their day. In recent years, the issue of lead contamination in drinking water has caused environmental and safety issues across Michigan. To address this critical concern, on October 19, 2023, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a series of Filter First bills into law, ensuring clean drinking water across the state’s schools and childcare centers. This legislation requires schools and daycares to have filtered-faucet systems, and to continue sampling and testing water periodically. Institutions included in this legislation also must develop a drinking water management plan, effectively ensuring that the water children consume is free from harmful contaminants.

Cases of lead exposure in Flint, MI that made drinking water poisonous out of tap represents an alarming environmental issue for the state that demonstrated the inequity of disaster response and relief among our government institutions. CSS Research Specialist Julie Arbit states that “Many Michigan communities have low levels of institutional trust due to historical and systemic power dynamics and crises.” Schools setting their own management plan, as required by this legislation, “allows community engagement, but schools need to be supported in assembling this information” to ensure it is complete in a reasonable time window. What’s more, Arbit notes that “all of the legislation in the world won’t necessarily change behaviors” related to drinking water in public spaces. As part of ongoing research at the Center, Arbit has facilitated focus groups with Flint schoolchildren. “Much of our initial work,” she says, “shows some Flint students still do not drink from the filtered Hydration Stations” that have been implemented. “Students are curious who is controlling the systems for testing, what is in the water, and how it could affect them,” but largely receive their news on water quality “from social media, school staff, and families.” Legislation, while a good first step, may not change the way Michigan students interact with water in schools and childcare centers.

Water filtration systems are a proven method for removing lead, as well as a variety of other contaminants, from drinking water. They provide an effective barrier between contaminants and the consumers, offering a reliable and sustainable solution to the problem of lead exposure. The implementation of filtered-faucets may also begin the work of restoring confidence in the safety of Michigan's water supply, though more work is required on that front. After many years of inaction on the issue leaving populations vulnerable to a suite of potential health and safety concerns, this bipartisan legislation offers hope for a more proactive government response to environmental crises. “Schools are a fantastic setting to be exploring and expanding this knowledge,” says Arbit. “There are elements of the Filter First legislation applicable to many STEM subjects, in addition to civics and government education. With the right resources, teachers and students can be agents of the information on the water fountains in their schools. This is a big opportunity to change the landscape around trust, understanding, and behavior” when it comes to water in the state of Michigan.