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Tainted Taps: Lead puts California students at risk

EdSource Special Report

Gaps in California law requiring schools to test for lead could leave children at risk

New law prompts widespread testing for lead but limited action

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Gaps in a new California law requiring schools to test their drinking water for lead could leave children vulnerable to the toxic metal.

The law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last October, puts California among only seven states and the District of Columbia nationwide that require schools to test their drinking water for lead.

Thousands of schools across the state have already tested the water flowing from their drinking fountains, sinks and other sources.

Tainted Taps

This article is part of a special report on lead in California public schools. The second part will be published tomorrow, Lead problems linger at Los Angeles schools, despite years of testing.

View the interactive map, or read how EdSource analyzed lead test results. Printable factsheets are available on this page.

But California’s law establishes a limit for lead in drinking water that is far too lenient, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a national pediatricians’ group. The law requires schools to shut down or replace lead-contaminated fixtures only if tests find lead concentrations in their water higher than 15 parts per billion, the limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

No action is required at hundreds of schools across California where tests found lead in drinking water at levels at or under 15 parts per billion.

Public health advocates, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the consumer group CALPIRG, say no amount of lead is safe and have pushed for lead limits to be lowered to 1 part per billion. The organizations warn that water with levels lower than 15 parts per billion can still increase lead concentrations in children’s blood, limiting their brain development and putting them at increased risk for behavioral problems.

“We know there is no safe lead level,” said Dr. Jennifer Lowry, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Environmental Health. “Schools ought to work to remove that source of lead for these kids.”

The State Water Resources Control Board, the agency that is enforcing the water-testing law, issues a similar warning on its website about the dangers of lead exposure to children: “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect cognitive abilities, including IQ, the ability to pay attention and academic achievement. The effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected; therefore it is important to prevent lead exposure entirely.”

California’s lead testing law has other weaknesses, an EdSource analysis shows.

Reginald Mosley, a parent at Sankofa Academy, Oakland

Oakland Unified is one of the districts that sends home letters notifying parents of the results of lead testing. Reginald Mosley, the father of three students at Sankofa Academy, an elementary school in Oakland, said he was happy to hear tests at the school did not find any lead levels over 5 parts per billion. Still, Mosley said he wants school officials to stay on top of any potential problems by testing for lead annually.

“Even if you don’t find it one year you should test again the next year,” he said. “At this early stage in their lives it’s very important.”

Lead enters drinking water by breaking off in particles or leaching from corroded lead-bearing pipes, solder, faucets and other plumbing fixtures. Lead levels at schools often vary widely from one fixture to another. If tests show high lead levels, the utility must test water at the point that it enters the school building from local supply systems.

Without more extensive testing, schools could leave dangerous outlets in use and allow children to drink contaminated water, said Elin Warn Betanzo, a former Environmental Protection Agency official who now runs a drinking water consulting firm in Michigan.

“A one-time test at five taps at an entire school is not sufficient,” Betanzo said of California’s law. “That does not give me any confidence.”

“Fifteen parts per billion has nothing to do with the safety of drinking water.”

—Elin Warn Betanzo, former EPA official.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, the San Diego Democrat who authored the testing law, said she agrees with critics that some of its key provisions are not as strong as they should be. Gonzalez Fletcher said she hopes schools test all of their drinking water sources and replace any outlets that test above 5 parts per billion, the federal limit for lead in bottled water.

The 15 parts per billion standard was a compromise needed to pass the law after school districts balked at tougher requirements, said Gonzalez Fletcher, and she is open to lowering that limit in the future. She stressed that her law is the first to require testing for lead in California schools.

“I’m not walking away from this issue,” Gonzalez Fletcher said. “We wanted a baseline and we wanted to discuss other solutions … after we got a baseline.”

Nancy Chaires Espinoza, a legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association, said her organization pushed for the law to adopt the EPA’s 15 parts per billion standard in part out of concern that a lower lead limit would increase repair costs for districts.

“We have the federal scientific experts saying one thing and other experts saying other things,” Chaires Espinoza said. “We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing before we mandate that schools across the state make some costly changes.”

Analysis: High lead levels at many schools

EdSource compiled a database of test results from more than 3,700 schools across California that tested for lead over the past two years.

It is unclear how many of the state’s more than 10,000 schools must have their water tested by next July. The law exempts schools built or modernized since 2010 and schools already testing their water. Private schools are also exempt, but can request the free testing, which water utilities started offering in 2017.

A classroom sink and drinking fountain are taped off at Commodore Stockton Early Education School in San Francisco in preparation for lead testing required under a new California law.

Local water utilities are required to provide the free water tests, but some districts have commissioned their own tests. Districts must pay for any repairs, although public schools in disadvantaged communities can apply for funds to cover work such as repairing or replacing water fixtures under a $9.5 million Drinking Water for Schools grant program.

“That’s nowhere near enough” to fund repairs at districts across the state, Chaires Espinoza said.

As of June 1,  the state water board’s database included test results from more than 2,700 schools in about 300 school districts. In addition, nearly 1,000 schools in Oakland, San Diego and Los Angeles have conducted lead tests since August 2016 and are included in EdSource’s database.

An analysis of data on lead testing conducted over the past two years found:

Schools with lead levels between 5 and 15 parts per billion — nearly one in four where tests have been conducted since 2016 — are in a gray area. District officials know lead is in their water and pediatricians and health advocates say the toxic metal could be harming their students. But they are not compelled to do anything about it.

The law “does not require the school to take any action” if lead levels are at or below 15 parts per billion, said Kurt Souza, an assistant deputy director with the Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Drinking Water.

Standard ‘irrelevant’ for water in schools

Critics of the 15 parts per billion federal standard, such as Betanzo and Lowry, say that level was adopted decades ago, based on how much lead regulators believed water utilities could feasibly measure and address. They say the level is often misinterpreted by school officials and the public to mean water with lead below that amount is safe to drink.

“Fifteen parts per billion has nothing to do with the safety of drinking water,” Betanzo said. She added that the standard is “completely irrelevant for measuring water quality in schools.”

Lead testing in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which began long before the new state law started requiring it, has identified more than 9,500 water outlets at 772 schools and district facilities with lead levels between 5 and 15 parts per billion since 2008. District officials insist their schools’ water is safe, however.

CALPIRG is now pushing school districts to adopt more stringent standards than the law requires to address lead levels below 15 parts per billion.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us to convince school districts that they should be going above and beyond what’s in the law,” said Emily Rusch, CALPIRG’s executive director.

“We know there is no safe lead level.”

—Dr. Jennifer Lowry, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Environmental Health

Lead paint and dust cause high blood lead levels in children far more often than drinking water. But even if drinking water is not the primary source of exposure, any amount of lead can compound the danger children face from the toxic metal, said Dr. Jill Johnston, a professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.

“The more sources of lead — the more potential pathways of exposure you get — the more lead that is impacting your body and has the potential to result in all these adverse health outcomes,” Johnston said.

With so little sampling required under California’s law, Betanzo warned that California will only get a limited glimpse of the potential extent of lead contamination at its schools. Betanzo said shortcomings in California’s law could lead to a problem she has seen in her home state of Michigan: School leaders projecting a false sense of security that they have eliminated lead as a danger, when the opposite could be true.

“What I’ve seen is so many schools that have minimal data and say, ‘The water is fine and there’s nothing to see here,’” Betanzo said. “I don’t think their data is worth that amount of confidence.”

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  1. Larry Brooks 1 month ago1 month ago

    The fact that there is no safe level of lead, multiple sources and not all water taps in schools are tested routinely is a strong argument for school districts to take a more proactive stance regarding blood lead testing to identify exposed children and adults early. In some other states schools require blood lead testing or parent waiver. This is an excellent way to identify children that might have been exposed at home or school … Read More

    The fact that there is no safe level of lead, multiple sources and not all water taps in schools are tested routinely is a strong argument for school districts to take a more proactive stance regarding blood lead testing to identify exposed children and adults early. In some other states schools require blood lead testing or parent waiver. This is an excellent way to identify children that might have been exposed at home or school as well as explain why a student might be developing learning disabilities or other disease due to continued exposure.