Investigative stories

Drinking Water in Elementary Schools: A Risk to Children’s Health That Is Not Being Resolved

28 Apr 2021
Drinking water (illustration); Photo: CINS)
Contaminated drinking water in some elementary schools in Serbia is a risk to children’s health that is not being dealt with, shows an analysis by CINS. Water dispensers and bottled water only temporarily replace the tap, for which permanent solutions are not even planned. The example of schools in Užice and the experts CINS talked with show that solutions are not unattainable.

“It’s difficult to explain to children not to drink water from the tap,” complained a parent from the southern Serbian village of Laćisled, where elementary school students do not have safe drinking water.

“Someone will make a mistake and drink that water (…) they don’t pay attention, they’re little kids after all.”

His children went to that school until recently but, because of the bad water from the school well, brought their own water from home. He says they have been promised a solution to the village water problem for years:

“Not from the school, but before elections they promise everything. (…) but it amounts to nothing.”

Coliform bacteria, which can be found in the colon and are excreted through feces, were discovered in drinking water in two elementary schools near Aleksandrovac on several occasions in the past few years.

This is stated in the data provided by the Kruševac Public Health Institute, which the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) analyzed. The Institute detected these and other bacteria in the water in three satellite units (separate buildings in rural environments) of the Ivo Lola Ribar Elementary School, attended by some 98 students, and in the four satellite units of the Aca Aleksić Elementary School, with 18 students.

Ivo Lola Ribar Elementary School principal Miljan Arsić told CINS that the children brought their own water because the school could not provide adequate drinking water.

Arsić says that the entire village has a problem with water quality and that it is up to the Municipality of Aleksandrovac to solve it. An additional problem, in his words, is that one of the satellite units is located in a village that does not have a water supply network.

Bojan Miletaković is the principal of the other school, Aca Aleksić, whose students drink water from a dispenser.

“The children are used to it (not drinking tap water), the teachers tell them. We monitor that, but if there were more children in the school, it would probably be difficult for us,” Miletaković explains.

Dušica Džamić, the Aleksandrovac municipal chief’s assistant for defense and emergency situations, believes that the schools have thereby solved the problem:

“The schools have secured drinking water, the local self-government is up to date with all goings-on, there are no problems there as far as water safety is concerned, all the children drink safe water.”

The most vulnerable groups where bad drinking water is concerned are children and the elderly, explains Božo Dalmacija, a water quality expert and professor at the Novi Sad Faculty of Sciences.

The health consequences, he says, depend on the content of the water:

“If it is microbiologically unsafe, then children may have stomach problems or dysentery (…) if children get an upset stomach at school, there will be a collective illness.”

Bottled water bad for the environment

The use of bottled water increases the amount of waste, especially PVC packaging which pollutes the environment, doctor Sanja Bijelović of the Institute of Public Health of Vojvodina told CINS in a recently published story about the quality of drinking water in Titel.

CINS has also calculated how much the purchase of water might cost the parents of the 98 students of the Ivo Lola Ribar Elementary School in the vicinity of Aleksandrovac. If everyone bought one 0.5 liter bottle of water per day, one child’s parent would have to pay close to 900 dinars per month, i.e. drinking water for all students would cost around 86,000 dinars per month, which annually produces more than 465 kilograms of plastic waste.

This kind of contamination can also cause so-called “hydric” epidemics of gastrointestinal diseases. According to a water safety report of the Institute of Public Health of Serbia Dr Milan Jovanović Batut, bacteriologically unsafe water earlier caused such an epidemic, unrelated to schools, in a village near Kraljevo in 2019, and on Mt. Kopaonik in 2018.

“Unfortunately, there is no study or an analysis in our country of the consequences of drinking water for children and people in general,” Dalmacija told CINS, adding that he had been calling for the conducting of an epidemiological study in high-risk places for years.

Solutions exist but are not implemented

The example of Aleksandrovac shows that schoolchildren outside of the center of the municipality drink bad water, where the supply sources are rural water supply systems or wells.

However, there have been instances of bacteriologically unsafe water even in the central municipalities themselves in some places in Serbia, which is why the local schools also have a problem. That was the case with 11 water supply networks in Serbia in 2019, shows the latest available report of the Batut Institute.

One of them is the Sombor water supply network. The Kiš Ferenc Elementary School in the village of Telečka, near Sombor, has water dispensers because the tap water is bad.

“One can taste the iron, the water system is old and the water is very bad,” says the school principal, Zoltan Kemiveš.

Vojvodina is not the only place affected by this problem. Bacteria are occasionally detected in the water in the Branko Radičević Elementary School in Petrovac na Mlavi.

When that occurs, the local water supply system chlorinates the water, school principal Dragiša Milošević told CINS. They regularly check the quality of the water and, as far as he recalls, they have not had any problems for at least a year and a half.

Solutions to the problem of unsafe school water exist, but are not implemented.

When water is bacteriologically unsafe, so-called UV lamps can solve the problem because UV rays kill bacteria, doctor Olivera Janjić of the Užice Public Health Institute explains.

UNICEF: Schools in Serbia and Croatia without drinking water

UNICEF, the world organization focusing on children’s rights, publishes annual reports on the state of hygiene and access to drinking water.

According to the 2018 report, out of the 23 European countries UNICEF observed, Serbia and Croatia were the only ones that had schools without access to drinking water.

There are several types of these lamps and they cost around 10,000 dinars on average. It is enough to install one lamp at one filling site and thus solve the problem.

The City of Užice applied that solution in three village schools back in 2012.

Ratko Trmčić, a member of the City Council for Social Activities, says that an expert from the city administration suggested these lamps as one of the solutions. The Užice Environmental Fund provided the money for the lamps.

“UV lamps are for small flows, for smaller environments. (…) We have temporarily solved the problem using UV lamps, but they need to be replaced when the experts say so, a UV lamp cannot be in place for a year without anyone checking it. Everything has to be checked,” Trmčić explains.

He adds that the long-term plan is for all local communities to be connected to the city water supply network, so as to monitor quality control more easily.

The school principals CINS spoke to have not heard that lamps can solve the problem. Bojan Miletaković, the principal of the Aca Aleksić Elementary School in Aleksandrovac, says that he will gladly try them if they can improve the quality of the water.

Another solution to the problem is water chlorination – in places where there are no additional problems. Chlorination is a good choice, professor Dalmacija explains, due to the so-called chlorine residual, which means that it remains in the water supply network and kills microorganisms longer.

Nevertheless, a professional has to do it, i.e. a water utility company, adds Dalmacija. Sodium hypochlorite (used to chlorinate water) must be used up in two months or it degrades, the station at which chlorination is carried out should not be exposed to direct sunlight and the quantity of chlorine poured into the pipes must not be excessive.

If a school wants to solve the problem on its own, then it needs to hire someone familiar with the procedure.

Miletaković says that the water children at the Aca Aleksić school drink is chlorinated, but that it has not helped.

“We do that, but I’m not sure how effective it is. We are certainly following their (the Public Health Institute’s, journalists’ note) instructions not to drink the water.”

If chlorination does not help, the internal plumbing in schools might not be working properly, says Sombor PUC Vodokanal Director Jasmina Bobić. They had the same problem at the Sombor Gymnasium high school, which eventually disinfected its internal network.

The Institute of Public Health of Vojvodina in its 2019 report on risks in the school environment proposes the installation of so-called water fountains as a solution for bad drinking water.

Doctor Olivera Janjić thinks that is not enough:

“It is not enough for just one filling site to have safe drinking water, because it is difficult to explain to children that they can drink water from one tap but not from another.”



Some schools have bigger problems – and slightly more expensive solutions.

While UV lamps can kill bacteria, viruses and other living organisms, they cannot eliminate chemical contaminants. When water is simultaneously physically, chemically and bacteriologically contaminated, then one of the solutions is for the local water supply systems to clean the water pipes. Sometimes the pipes need to be replaced as well.

In the vicinity of Kikinda, drinking water has been the leading threat to children’s health for years, according to the reports of the local Institute. Different bacteria were detected in the water in elementary schools and kindergartens on several occasions, and the water was also physically and chemically unsafe.

There is a solution in this case, too, Dalmacija explains.

“We cannot say that there is nothing we can do. We can install devices for managing iron, manganese, organic pollutants, even arsenic which is toxic. All that can be done in a small system and the water can be purified so that children can drink it without much trouble.”

Dalmacija adds that those devices are somewhat expensive (several tens of thousands of euros, depending on the severity of the problem), but points out that children’s health is priceless.

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