TULARE COUNTY – A new report shows that Tulare County schools have low levels of lead flowing in the water from faucets and fountains. But a statewide consumer group says any level of lead is too high for our children.
The California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG), a statewide consumer advocacy group, issued a report on March 21 giving California a C+ for its efforts to address lead in school drinking water. That’s higher than the state’s F grade in 2017. In the second edition of its Get The Lead Out study, CALPIRG reports that 45 percent of schools are still missing test results and of the 55 percent of schools that have been tested, one third of school districts had a school with lead levels at more than 5 parts per billion (ppb).
“Schools should be safe places for our kids to learn and play, but California is still not doing enough to protect our kids from lead in drinking water,” said Ryann Lynn, CALPIRG Field Organizer. “We need policies that actually get the lead out of faucets and fountains in our schools and pre-schools.”
Less than one-third of Tulare County schools have been tested for lead in the water under a 2017 law, AB 746, requiring community water systems to test for lead at every school built prior to 2010. Water systems have until July 1, 2019 to complete the testing. Only schools in Tulare and Porterville have tested their drinking water for lead. None of the schools in the Exeter, Cutler-Orosi, Dinuba, Lindsay, Woodlake, Visalia unified school districts, or Burton Elementary school district in Porterville were tested. None of the county’s single school districts such as Monson-Sultana Elementary, Traver Elementary, Strathmore Union Elementary School, Terra Bella, Sunnyside, Springville, Richgrove, Pixley, Oak Valley, Earlimart, Ducor, and Allensworth were tested.
Of the 119 school sites in Tulare County, seven school sites had water with lead levels over 5 ppb, well below the 15 ppb allowed by the state but higher than the 1ppb that CALPIRG says is safe for children. Porterville Unified had six schools with lead levels over 5ppb. Tulare had one elementary school, Roosevelt, with lead levels of 5ppb.
Most schools and pre-schools still have fountains or faucets that contain lead, and wherever there is lead, there is a risk of water contamination. CALPIRG is calling on school districts throughout the state to proactively install filters on drinking water fountains, test every outlet for lead, and commit to replacing pipes and plumbing fixtures wherever it is needed to get tests down to less than 1 ppb lead. For example, in 2017 San Diego Unified School District committed to testing every outlet for lead and replacing fixtures when even low levels of lead are found. Voters approved a local school bond measure last November that among other things, will help the school district fund the solutions needed.
“Drinking water in our public schools should not put the health of our students at risk. As a parent of young kids in school, I care as much as anyone about this issue,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez who authored AB 746. “I’m glad districts are starting to take this seriously since we passed our lead testing at school sites legislation. But more work needs to be done to ensure all school drinking water is safe.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10% to 20% of total lead exposure for young children comes from drinking water. California generally has newer water infrastructure than other parts of the nation and lead problems are rare, but recent events in schools led to the new requirement. Overall lead is not a huge problem in municipal systems in Tulare County. According to its 2017 water quality report, the most recent year available, the City of Exeter’s water barely registers a fraction of a percent of the maximum contaminant level. In fact, Exeter, Farmersville, Visalia and Woodlake did not exceed the standard for lead in their most recent reports. The City of Lindsay, which gets the majority of its water from the Friant-Kern Canal, also did not have any sites exceed the standard for lead.
Lead can affect almost every organ and system in your body, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The most sensitive is the central nervous system (brain), particularly in children. Lead also damages kidneys and the reproductive system. Lead in children’s blood has been associated with reduced IQ and attention span, learning disabilities, poor classroom performance, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, impaired growth, and hearing loss. Infants and children who drink water containing lead in excess of the lead action level may experience delays in their physical or mental development. Children may show slight deficits in attention span and learning abilities. Adults who drink this water over many years may develop kidney problems or high blood pressure.
For more information on the Lead Sampling in Schools Program and information on AB 746, visit the State Water Board’s web page.
In response to the report, the American Academy of Pediatrics, California State PTA, and Compton Unified School district all joined CALPIRG in calling for swift action to ensure lead-free water in California’s schools and daycares.
“Lead is a potent neurotoxin, affecting the way our kids learn, grow, and behave,” said Dr. Alice Kuo from the American Academy of Pediatrics. “There is no safe level of lead for children.”
Additionally, CALPIRG is calling on the state legislature to help schools find funding solutions. A small state grant funding program is currently available through the California State Water Control Board, but it’s not nearly enough to address the problem in every district.
“Future school bonds should require schools to conduct testing and lead remediation, and have a distinct pot of funding to pay for it,” said Emily Rusch, Executive Director for CALPIRG. “Additionally, schools need a sustainable safe water fund to be able to budget for ongoing costs to change out filters for their drinking water fountains. Let’s make sure our schools are healthy environments for our children to grow and thrive.”
Parents in other states are demanding action too. CALPIRG Education Fund’s counterparts are working with doctors and parents and community leaders in seven other states to advance policies that Get the Lead Out of schools and daycares. California did score better than 27 states and received the same score as New York and Oregon. The only states to receive a grade better than ‘C’ Washington, D.C. and Illinois, which received a B+ and a B- respectively.