Two years ago, McClymonds High School in Oakland found alarmingly high lead levels in water coming from a locker room shower. Water from some fountains and sinks tested high as well, leading health and community activists to demand that the district ensure safe water for all children.
As the new school year begins, Oakland is carrying out an aggressive strategy to limit lead in water by expanding water testing, installing filtered water stations and adopting a lead limit of 5 parts per billion, lower than the state and federal limit of 15 parts per billion.
This article is part three of a special report on lead in California public schools. Part two, Lead problems in water linger at Los Angeles schools, despite years of testing and repairs, was published yesterday. Part one, Gaps in California law requiring schools to test for lead could leave children at risk, was published Tuesday.
McClymonds has new locker room shower fixtures and the district installed filters at drinking fountains and sinks throughout the West Oakland high school.
Oakland Unified is among the California districts that have adopted lead limits for their drinking water that are more stringent than those in a new state law that requires schools to have their water tested for the toxic metal. Berkeley Unified has adopted a 1 part per billion standard, a limit recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. San Diego Unified has adopted a 5 parts per billion limit and is looking to borrow $45 million to further lower its lead standard to 1 part per billion by 2020.
“It just became clear to the district and to our board that 15 parts per billion was too high,” said Samer Naji, a San Diego Unified spokesman.
But districts like Oakland, San Diego and Berkeley could be the exception. The law does not require districts to take any action unless fixtures test above 15 parts per billion of lead. It’s unclear how many districts decided on their own to shut down fixtures or install filtered water once they received test results under 15 parts per billion from their local utilities.
Critics say California’s law, which requires all schools to test up to five fixtures by next July, has serious gaps that could leave children exposed to the toxic metal.
McClymonds senior Torrianna Wilson said it was “terrifying” to hear that water outlets at her school had such high lead levels to begin with. Water from one shower fixture had lead levels more than 170 times the federal limit; a sink in the school’s kitchen tested at six times the limit. And while the district now says that the water is safe, Wilson says she is wary.
“I was using that water before,” she said. “What if we drink the water and there’s still lead in there? Then what?”
Lead enters water from corroded pipes, fountainheads, faucets and other plumbing fixtures. Ingesting even small amounts of lead can stunt children’s brain development, lower IQ and put them at greater risk for learning disabilities, among other problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“People want to have a tighter standard. It’s better for our kids.”
—Nik Kaestner, San Francisco Unified’s director of sustainability
California’s lead testing law, which went into effect on Jan. 1, requires schools to take action only if their drinking water tests with lead levels over 15 parts per billion. No amount of lead is safe and the 15 parts per billion standard for tap water in federal and state regulations is far too high, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents the nation’s pediatricians. The federal limit for lead in bottled water is 5 parts per billion.
An EdSource analysis of test results found 24 schools in Oakland, and 150 throughout California, with lead levels in water sources over 15 parts per billion.
But testing also revealed that 46 schools in Oakland — just over one-third of those tested — had lead levels between 5 and 15 parts per billion.
Statewide, 897, or about a fourth of the schools tested over the last two years, found lead at those levels. For most of the schools — 754 — that test was their highest reading.
Those schools had enough lead in their water to be harmful, according to the pediatricians association, but not enough that districts are required under the law to make repairs.
High lead levels at some Oakland schools
Oakland Unified’s lead testing work began in August 2016, before the state law went into effect. Since then, tests have been conducted at 133 Oakland schools, which includes all district schools and many charters.
The district shut off every water outlet where tests found lead levels over 5 parts per billion after lowering its lead limit in February, spokesman John Sasaki said.
Sasaki stressed that the sources of lead contamination at those schools were individual water fixtures — not supply lines and pipes running throughout the building — so high lead levels found at one water fixture do not mean that an entire school’s water supply is contaminated.
“We have some older facilities with some older fixtures,” Sasaki said. “In every case we have taken the suspect outlets out of service.”
“(Oakland) is an area where there is concern about accumulation of lead exposure”
—Emily Rusch, CALPIRG’s executive director
Seventy-six Oakland schools, about half of those tested, did not have any fixture with lead levels above 5 parts per billion.
The consumer group CALPIRG was among the organizations that pushed Oakland Unified and the other districts to use a more stringent standard than 15 parts per billion.
“(Oakland) is an area where there is concern about accumulation of lead exposure — not just from lead in water,” said Emily Rusch, CALPIRG’s executive director. She cited a 2016 Reuters report that found children in some parts of Oakland — a city with a long industrial history — were more likely to have elevated lead levels in their blood than those growing up in Flint, Michigan, where high lead levels in drinking water became a national scandal.
CALPIRG similarly lobbied San Diego Unified to use a lower lead standard than 15 parts per billion.
San Diego Unified started testing its water for lead in early 2017 after contractors working at La Mirada Elementary noticed discolored water. Since then, tests have identified 12 schools where a water outlet had lead levels above 15 parts per billion, out of 234 schools where tests have been conducted. A drinking fountain at Emerson/Bandini Elementary had a lead level of 134 parts per billion.
Some parents of Emerson-Bandini students said they were satisfied with how San Diego Unified handled lead problems at the school. Others said they wished officials had told them more about the extent of lead contamination.
“By letting us know, it shows [the district] was aware of the situation,” said Jose Garcia, the father of a fourth-grader at Emerson;Bandini. “But we needed them to go into more detail about the levels of lead.”
The controversy over the discovery of lead in some San Diego schools inspired Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, to introduce the statewide lead testing law.
The district lowered its lead standard to 5 parts per billion in July 2017. Tests recorded lead levels between 5 and 15 parts per billion at 45 San Diego schools.
Naji, the San Diego Unified spokesman, said repair work at fixtures that tested over 5 parts per billion is ongoing, as are more extensive tests of the district’s water sources.
Push for districts to adopt lower lead levels
Rusch said CALPIRG is encouraging “dozens of districts” that still rely on the 15 parts per billion standard, including San Francisco Unified and Los Angeles Unified, to adopt more stringent lead policies.
“We would love to see San Francisco Unified and other school districts across the state take similar actions as San Diego and Oakland,” Rusch said. “Wherever they are finding lead, they should be concerned that there is a larger problem.”
Nik Kaestner, San Francisco Unified’s director of sustainability, said the district has removed some contaminated fixtures that tested between 5 and 15 parts per billion. He said there is support for the lower threshold and the district will decide this fall whether to adopt it.
“Our kids can’t wait”
—Brandi Collins-Dexter, senior campaign director at Color of Change
Tests at 99 of San Francisco Unified’s 128 schools have identified four where water at a fixture tested over 15 parts per billion. Fourteen schools recorded lead levels between 5 and 15 parts per billion.
For CALPIRG and other advocates, even the steps Oakland and San Diego have taken to address lead don’t go far enough. They call for districts to adopt a lead limit of 1 part per billion, the standard recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics which represents 64,000 pediatricians and other physicians that work with children.
CALPIRG also called for the State Water Resources Control Board to change its lead regulations and use a lower standard than 15 parts per billion.
Oakland Unified’s drinking water policy calls for the board to decide in June of 2019 whether to lower its standard to require action for lead levels above 1 part per billion.
Color of Change, a national group that fights racial injustice, has launched a petition calling for Oakland to make the change now.
“We don’t see a reason to delay that,” said Brandi Collins-Dexter, Color of Change’s senior campaign director. “Our kids can’t wait.”
Berkeley Unified has taken that step, pledging to fix or shut down any water outlet that tests above 1 part per billion.
“We wanted to provide … as much safety for our students as was feasible for us,” said Charles Burress, a spokesman for Berkeley Unified.
For many districts, though, the cost of these more rigorous lead policies is a barrier. California’s lead testing law requires local water utilities to test up to five outlets at no cost to districts. If repairs are needed, districts in disadvantaged communities can apply for assistance from a $9.5 million Drinking Water for Schools state grant. Otherwise, districts must cover any repair costs.
San Diego Unified is seeking $45 million to fund lead remediation work to bring all of the district’s water outlets below 1 part per billion by 2020 as part of a $3.5 billion bond measure on the ballot this November. The bond would also provide money to bolster school security systems and update older classrooms.
Burress said Berkeley Unified spent just $20,000 on lead testing and remediation. Of the district’s 20 schools, three tested over 15 parts per billion and three others had lead levels between 1 and 5 parts per billion; the rest were under 1 part per billion. Berkeley High had a drinking fountain test at 640 parts per billion but it had been previously shut down and was tested by mistake, officials said.
Oakland Unified, which is struggling with a budget deficit, has set aside $2.3 million for its ongoing lead remediation work, in addition to $319,000 it has already spent on testing and repairs.
The district is also spending over $400,000, funded by city and county governments, to install new hydration stations at each of its schools this fall, where students fill up cups or bottles with filtered water. San Diego Unified is considering hydration stations as well.
One of the first Oakland schools to receive a station was Sankofa Academy, an elementary school. Even though tests did not find any lead levels over 5 parts per billion at Sankofa, Lacresha Foster said she felt reassured knowing her two children at the school would have access to filtered water.
“I was excited to see it when I came here for registration,” Foster said. “Knowing that it’s clean water — that was a good relief.”
EdSource reporter David Washburn contributed to this report.