Lead Testing in Schools

The tap water at most California’s schools is considered safe while officials are working to ensure that older water systems are thoroughly tested.

A grueling game of tether ball. A competitive kickball session. Or maybe just one of those typical hot California fall days. Whether they’re filling their reusable bottles or slurping it straight from the fountain, water is a necessity for the school day. And with kids just heading back to the classroom, the last thing parents want to worry about is the safety of school water.

Mom and Dad might sleep a little easier now knowing that any public K-12 school built before 2010 will be required to test lead levels in all school drinking water sources by July 2019. But what about newer schools? Should we be concerned with  those too? The mandate doesn’t include any site built after the 2010 cutoff, but a new state directive gives those officials the option to request testing.

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Water: California style

Few people think of tap water without remembering the Flint, Michigan lead poisoning crisis of 2014. The contamination occurred when the city, looking to save money on utilities, began sourcing water from the Flint River instead of Lake Huron and the Detroit River. The water was not properly treated and lead from old pipes leached into the supply, poisoning the tap for more than 100,000 residents.

Thankfully, the Golden State’s water supply rarely contains lead. Yet there are some older buildings, homes and schools with pipes, fixtures, solder or other infrastructure that  still contain lead. And even if the water is all derived from the same source, the plumbing fixtures that it runs through could contain lead and possibly cause contamination.

In response to this potential health hazard, the State’s Division of Drinking Water (DDW) and the California Department of Education have joined forces to begin testing public school’s water supply.

In 2017, the DDW amended the permits of at least 1,200 community water systems to enable school districts to receive assistance from their public water utility. The local water system must sample the school’s supply within 90 days of the request and will collect and analyze up to five water samples. If a high lead level is discovered, the school will receive support to deal with the issue and set up an action plan. Legislators went a step further with the passage of Assembly Bill 746, the bill requiring older schools to test lead levels by July 2019.

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Schools are already sampling

Since California’s infrastructure tends to sit on the newer side, most of the state’s water supply is safe, yet there have been some incidents. In 2017, high levels of lead, copper and bacteria were discovered at two elementary schools and one middle school in the San Diego County-based San Ysidro School District. The issue was unearthed when discolored water began flowing from faucets during a routine pressure check. The schools immediately shut off all water and had the supply analyzed. Students were instructed to only drink bottled water supplied by the district and continued to do so until the end of the year.

Testing revealed that the water source wasn’t the issue, but instead old faucets were leaking lead into the tap water. The same issue occurred up in Sacramento in 2015 when Folsom Cordova Unified School District found elevated levels of lead in one of its schools that serves preschoolers and special needs students. Some of the District’s schools were built in the 1960s and have old piping. The District began testing all its facilities and is continuing to do so.

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The serious health consequences of lead poisoning

Even at what is considered low levels, lead can cause a range of health issues including: learning disabilities, developmental delays, weight loss, abdominal pain and behavioral issues. The chemical can build up for months or years and is particularly dangerous in children younger than 6 since they are still developing. Although the requirement is only for schools eight years or older, many institutions that don’t fall under that umbrella are already testing. And the DDW encourages all public schools to take advantage of the program to ensure that their drinking water is safe.

If the lead in the tap water exceeds 15 parts per billion, then the school must conduct further testing to ensure that it’s safe for students to drink.  Of the state’s nearly 13,000 public and private schools, a total of 3,444 public and 220 private institutions have tested the lead levels in their drinking water. A total of 16,781 sites reported lead levels of less than 15 parts per billion, 683 were in the middle range with levels between 5 parts per billion and 15 parts per billion, while 186 sites reported levels exceeding the regulatory cut-off.

Water agencies work diligently to ensure that tap water is safe for the public to consume anywhere, including schools. Regular tap water testing and monitoring is required to meet and exceed State and Federal water quality standards. The State Water Resources Control Board has created an interactive map for residents to check on the lead levels or current status of local schools. If you have concerns about the tap water at your child’s school, contact your district to find out more.