1 in 4 California Child Care Centers That Responded to First State Testing Requirement Had Unsafe Lead Levels in Drinking Water

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Cropped shot of an unrecognizable little girl washing her hands at home
 (LaylaBird/Getty Images)

For the first time in state history, child care centers in California had to test their drinking water for possible lead contamination, and preliminary results show about a quarter of those that reported results contained unsafe levels of lead, according to data recently reported by state regulators.

Of the nearly 6,900 centers whose results have been disclosed, almost 1,700 had lead levels that exceeded 5 parts per billion (ppb) — the state’s allowable limit for child care centers. Of those, 13 had lead levels above 500 ppb, including four in the Bay Area.

La Petite Academy in San Diego reported the highest levels of lead — 11,300 ppb — of any child care center in the state. That’s more than 2,200 times higher than what California allows, and comes close to some of the highest levels detected during the catastrophic water crisis in Flint, Michigan, nearly a decade ago.

The facility has since gotten rid of two drinking fountains with the highest lead samples and found its remaining water sources safe after retesting them, said Joanna Cline, spokesperson for the center.

The results indicate that the young children at those centers have been drinking lead-contaminated water for years, which is particularly worrisome because their bodies can absorb significantly more lead — up to five times as much — than those of adults, said Susan Little, a senior advocate with the Environmental Working Group, the nonprofit that analyzed the test results.

“What’s so tragic about this is that this testing is not only an indicator of existing problems, but it also is an indicator of what could have been going on for decades in the drinking water in these centers throughout the state,” Little told KQED.

Lead is a toxic metal found throughout the environment that can enter drinking water from corroded pipes, and has been found to harm children’s nervous systems and brain development if ingested in highly concentrated amounts. Exposure to lead — even at low levels — has been linked to developmental delays and cognition and behavioral problems.

For those reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2016 recommended that lead concentrations in drinking water at schools not exceed 1 ppb.

EWG’s study stems from a state law passed in 2018, AB 2370, that required all licensed child care centers located in buildings constructed before 2010 to test every faucet for lead contamination by January of this year, and then retest the water every five years.


Under the law, the state would order any facilities with water exceeding the limit of 5 ppb to reduce lead levels to as close to zero as possible.

The standards for child care centers are higher than those at elementary, middle and high schools, which don’t have to test every tap and are not required to replace fixtures or notify parents unless lead levels exceed 15 ppb.

Assemblymember Chris Holden, who authored AB 2370, introduced a bill this year that would require schools to meet the same standards as child care centers.

“By aligning childcare and school lead testing standards we can protect children from the toxic effects of lead,” Holden said in a statement.

Child care centers had a two-year window to have their drinking water tested for lead contamination. But so far, months past the deadline, hundreds have still not reported results, according to EWG’s analysis.

A bar chart showing 13 child care centers in California with the highest lead levels.

Little said she expects the number of facilities with unhealthy lead exposure to grow as more test results come in.

“It appears this is the tip of the iceberg,” she said, noting that licensed family child care homes in California, which outnumber child care centers, are not even required to test their water for lead.

Little advises parents who send their children to family child care homes to encourage their providers to install newer faucets and lead-removing filters.

Parents who send their children to a center can look up lead-level results (PDF) in EWG’s database and, if the results from that facility are missing, press them to test their water.

If the center has been found to have an unsafe level of lead in its water, Little encourages parents to ask providers for details on what they have done to lower those levels.

Kumiko Inui, director of ABC Preschool in San Francisco, whose lead levels ranked fourth highest in the study, said that result was due to an outdoor sink that hadn’t been used in years and has since been shut off. But she said other fixtures at the Japanese-English bilingual preschool were below 5 ppb, and that the school uses a filter in its kitchen sink and supplies bottled water to students.

“I’m disappointed to get this kind of attention,” she said.

Jessica Griswold, principal of St. Catherine of Siena in Martinez, which ranked fifth in the statewide study, said high levels of lead were found in water from a sink in the director’s office that similarly hadn’t been used for several years. As a precaution, she said, students now get their drinking water from dispensers instead of fountains.

A spokesperson for Kidango Linda Vista in San José, which had the 11th highest lead levels, said the center replaced problematic fixtures and supply lines and retested the water.

“We are pleased to report that each classroom at Linda Vista now has alternate fixtures that dispense water containing zero lead particles,” the spokesperson, Mario Fierro-Hernandez, said in a statement.

Tiffany Teele, the director of the Bunker Hill Parents Participation Nursery School in San Mateo, which ranked 13th in lead levels, said an outdoor faucet that was only used for washing hands was the problematic fixture. The school has since replaced the faucet, retested the water and has been cleared, she said.