Getting the Lead Out
In a striking report published by the nonprofit organization EdSource titled Tainted Taps: Lead Puts California Students at Risk, authors Justin Allen, Daniel Willis and Yuxuan Xie provided detailed information about the levels of lead in drinking water at several California school sites across the state.
The authors’ interactive map shines a spotlight on one of the most urgent health risks to the state’s school-aged children. The report revealed levels of lead in parts per billion (ppb) in school drinking water based on test results provided in early June by the State Water Resources Control Board.
In addition to raising awareness about this important issue, the report is also timely in its relevance. In October 2017, AB 746 became law in California. The measure referred to as the California Safe Drinking Water Act, requires all public-school sites constructed before January 1, 2010 have their potable water systems tested for lead before January 1, 2019. Although much testing remains to be completed in advance of that date, the report provides a snapshot of findings for the schools where the lead testing was completed.
“Exposure to lead can have a wide range of effects on a child’s development and behavior. Even when exposed to small amounts of lead levels, children may appear inattentive, hyperactive, and irritable. Children with greater lead levels may also have problems with learning and reading, delayed growth, and hearing loss. At high levels, lead can cause permanent brain damage and even death.”
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
The Association of California Water Agencies reported California’s drinking water in general, is at low risk for lead contamination. Water agencies periodically test to assure lead levels in drinking water are in accordance with state and federal drinking laws. In 2010, the state reduced the lead content standard for drinking water plumbing, from 4 percent to 0.25 percent.
Lead is a heavy metal found in natural deposits and although it can leach into drinking water from lead-containing pipes or fixtures due to corrosion, lead service lines are not commonly found in California. However, lead is also present in solder, brass fixtures, and galvanized pipes, and depending on how corrosive the water is, this can also cause lead to leach into drinking water.
Two years ago, many California school districts adopted more stringent lead limits for their drinking water that are more rigorous than those defined by state law. EdSouce noted these levels in its report. Lead levels above 15 ppb require corrective action; levels between 5.1 and 15 ppb can be harmful but no action is required; also, state tests do not detect levels below 5 ppb.
Testing was already completed on nearly a third of the state’s 10,600 schools, including a limited number in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. In addition, although the law does not require private schools to test their water many choose to do so. The report includes results for 174 of the approximate 3,000 private schools in the state in addition to other district related buildings.
The report includes an interactive map where readers can search by school name to check the level of lead in their school’s drinking water. Although the map does not allow you to sort by county or region for the purposes of this article, EdSource author Daniel Willis provided a list of local schools whose results are included in the map.
Although many schools in Riverside and San Bernardino County are still in the process of testing, among those whose information was included in the report were several in the San Jacinto, Calimesa, Temecula, as well as a limited number in the Riverside and Calimesa Unified School Districts. According to the data, all tested below 15 ppb with the majority testing at 5ppb.
As noted above, although levels between 5 and 15 ppb do not “require action,” pediatricians and other health care advocates say even these levels pose a health risk—especially to children.
In addition, according to the Centers for Disease Control, lead can accumulate in the body over time where it is stored in bones along with calcium and can cause symptoms most people might not associate with it.
In many cases, according to experts, the symptoms brought on by metal toxicity are often misdiagnosed for chronic conditions such as autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression and multiple sclerosis. Often, the signs and symptoms do not appear until dangerous amounts have accumulated.
The Riverside County Superintendent of Schools was contacted for comment on this report. Craig Petinak, Director of Public Relations and Communications Services responded, “Due to the lack of a role on the part of the county office of education in this arena, and upon review of the data . . ., it will be best for you to connect with individual school districts on this topic.”
Petinak advised that testing and remediation are handled at the district level, not the county level. Subsequently, a few school districts in Riverside County were contacted.
Several schools whose lead test results were included in the map are in the San Jacinto Unified School District (SJUSD). Just under two years ago, San Jacinto Unified School District partnered with the Eastern Municipal Water District to provide hydration stations at two school sites, supporting compliance with USDA regulations (Healthy Hungry Free Kids Act) for supplying drinking water with meals.
“The district has always featured drinking fountains, but they weren’t being accessed often. The student response to those new water refill stations was very positive, and now the district has hydration stations at all school sites,” Dawn Lawrence Communications & Emergency Preparedness Coordinator. “These new installations feature chilled and filtered water, including filtering for lead levels to one ppb.”
SJUSD’s Nutrition Services Director Tammy White added, “Besides providing water that kids like, we are also promoting use of reusable water bottles.
“Of course, we want our drinking water to be safe, and it is like us to exceed minimum State requirements at schools and support health advocate recommendations,” she stressed.
Laura Boss, Public Information Officer for the Temecula Valley School District responded to The Voice/Black Voice News inquiries about Temecula Valley’s results. “All of our schools have been tested,” she shared noting, “All fountains except one had non-detectable levels of lead. The one fountain that had a detectable level was still less than the reportable level.” According to Boss, the fountain in question was replaced and upon retesting any remaining lead is now at non-detectable levels.
Testing for lead levels at school sites under the jurisdiction of San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools (SBCSS), though still ahead of next year’s deadline, is in the early stages.
So far, testing was completed at a limited number of schools in San Bernardino County. At Park Middle School in the Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified School District, a fixture originally tested at 23 ppb. Although it was retested August 1st, those results were not yet available.
Test results were also included for schools in the Colton Joint Unified School District. A fixture at the San Salvador preschool in Colton originally tested 25 ppb and was removed from service. In addition, at the Terrace View Elementary School in Colton a fixture tested at 73 ppb. Repairs were made to the faulty fixture.
“Schools in San Bernardino County are already working with water agencies to have testing completed to determine lead contents in their drinking water,” said SBCSS Communications Manager Dan Evans. “Under new state legislation enacted in 2017, schools statewide have until mid-2019 to complete testing on their water.”
Evans stressed in conclusion, “It’s encouraging that so many San Bernardino County schools and districts already have started this process, because the safety and well-being of students and staff is a top priority.”
The CDC recommends that virtually all children should be screened for lead poisoning and screening children with a probability of exposure to high-dose sources is the highest priority. In addition, children with greatest risk for high-dose lead exposure should be screened more frequently. Such screening should be performed using a blood lead test.
Learn what the lead levels are in the drinking water at your child’s school by exploring the EdSource map and associated reporting at https://edsource.org/2018/interactive-map-lead-levels-found-in-california-schools-drinking-water/602769.