When a therapy dog refused to drink the water at a San Diego grade school, it was the first clue that something was wrong.
Tests soon revealed why the pup turned up its nose back in early 2017 — the presence of vinyl chloride, which is used to make PVC plumbing pipes and may be released as the plastic degrades. It’s also a known carcinogen.
But further analysis of the water at the San Diego Cooperative Charter School found something else that had gone undetected by the dog, the teachers, and district officials: elevated levels of lead. The district conducted more tests last spring, and found harmful lead levels at other San Diego schools as well.
It’s not an isolated problem. In Los Angeles, the district has been working for years to identify contaminated fountains and lower the lead levels. And after the much-publicized toxic lead contamination of water in Flint, Mich., a 2016 Reuters report revealed that children in dozens of California neighborhoods had elevated lead levels in their blood.
Lead is a neurotoxin that causes developmental disorders and brain damage. No amount of lead in humans is considered safe.
Now, under a new law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October, public schools are required to get their drinking water sampled for lead, and notify parents if they find traces of the toxic metal. Districts now have until July 2019 to test all campuses, including charter schools.
The school-testing law requires districts to test for lead at least once a year, or once every three years, depending on when the buildings were constructed. If tests find that lead is higher than the state and federal threshold of 15 parts per billion, the school district must notify parents and shut down the contaminated water source until it can be fixed.
“A more aggressive standard”
Previously, California law gave school districts the option to obtain free testing from their local water supplier, but less than 10 percent of schools had taken advantage of the voluntary program. That’s what spurred Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) to sponsor the new testing bill.
“You can’t have water with anything testing above the limits that are drinkable and not follow through and fix for the solution,” she said. “We want to ensure that when you find lead, water is shut off and parents are notified so they can have their kids tested.”
San Diego Unified has rolled out the strongest policy in the state. Its board decided in late July to set its own threshold at 5 parts per billion, well below the state and federal standard of 15.
“We said the state action level was too high, and so we thought we should have a more aggressive standard,” said district spokesman Andrew Sharp. “We wanted to be able to say ‘Look, when kids go back to school in the fall, if there was a positive test for lead on your campus you should know we will have fixed that fountain or kids won’t be drinking from that fountain.’”
Water sampling at San Diego public schools has revealed three campuses with at least one water source above 15 parts per billion, and another 33 sites with water that showed levels between 5 and 15 parts per billion.
The district is working to fix or close the problematic fountains, Sharp said, and intends to test every drinking water source at its schools in the next three to five years. In the meantime, it’s begun a daily “flushing” of fountains at all schools — staff members open the spigot for one minute, to flush through any stagnant water in older pipes and fixtures, which can leach lead into the water overnight.
Flushing water fountains has been going on for decades in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
“It became evident that a particular kind of drinking fountain had lead content,” said Robert Laughton, district director for environmental health and safety.
“It was that old style you used to see, that was the square-mounted stainless-steel thing, that was chilled,” Laughton explained. “Well, those old drinking fountains had lead-lined water basins in them, and so in 1988 we removed all of them and began random sampling and began flushing all fountains district-wide.”
Back then, the district lacked the money to replace or fix contaminated fountains, so at any school where even one water sample exceeded the lead limit of 15 parts per billion, janitors had to flush every drinking source for 30 seconds each morning, said Mark Hovatter, chief facilities executive for the district. Once flushed, the fountains usually tested below the 15 ppb threshold. Those that did not were shut down.
Hovatter said the district chose to “err on the side of safety” for the children, despite taking “a lot of heat during the drought for our flushing.”
That’s because the flushing program sent 2.5 million gallons of water down the drain every year.
Moving forward from preventive flushing to a permanent fix
In 2009, the district began systematically testing every single drinking fountain for lead. And in 2015 it finally appropriated nearly $20 million to end the flushing, by repairing or closing drinking fountains that tested high for lead. Laughton said all the district’s fountains will be fixed by this fall, and two-thirds of its schools have already been cleared to stop flushing.
Of the district’s 41,000 fountains, only four percent had lead levels exceeding the 15 ppb limit, according to Mark Cho, an operations deputy. Since the project began, his teams have removed or shut off 800 of those fountains, and fixed or replaced 672.
At the 9th Street School near downtown, children line up after recess to drink water. To move them along, a playground monitor gives each child five seconds to drink.
“It tastes really good,” said Monica Marquez, 6, of the water.
“It tastes like watermelon,” said Vivian Villegas, 7.
At this school, flushing has already ended for all 43 fountains. Testing showed that none of them had to be fixed or shut down.
Now, officials in other school districts are calling Laughton and Hovatter, seeking advice on how to comply with the new law.
“This isn’t a situation where you can stick your head in the sand and say ‘If I don’t think I’m going to like the answer I’m not going to ask the question,” Laughton said. “We are responsible to know.”
Yet some public health advocates still consider the new law insufficient.
CALPIRG, a consumer advocacy group, had pushed a more stringent bill that would have required every school district to install filters and adopt a tougher lead limit for their drinking water — just one part per billion, instead of 15. But the bill died in committee.
Jason Pfeifle, a CALPIRG health advocate, said children shouldn’t be drinking water that may have lead levels up to 15 parts per billion.
“If a school finds a positive lead test, or finds that a drinking fountain has elevated levels of lead...then it’s already too late, and children have already been exposed,” Pfeifle said.
Screening children before they get to school
Gov. Brown also signed into law a related bill to address lead levels in younger children, before they reach kindergarten. This new law requires the Department of Public Health to develop a more comprehensive set of screening questions for doctors to use when determining which children should undergo lead-exposure testing. Previously, California only required testing of one- and two-year-olds enrolled in Medi-Cal or other programs for low-income families.
The new risk-assessment questions, due in 2019, might include asking whether the family lives near a major highway, or near the site of a former lead or steel smelter, or whether a child might be exposed because he or she spends time in another home or building. The law also requires the state health department to report the test results more promptly, post the data online, and indicate neighborhoods with significant lead-exposure problems.
Some kids in California have more lead than kids in Flint, MI
How widespread is the problem? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that five percent of tested children in Flint had elevated lead levels in their blood. By comparison, two percent of tested children in California, mostly those on Medi-Cal, have elevated levels.
But there are local hot spots in California where the data is alarming. In Alameda County, eight zip codes showed rates higher than or equal to Flint’s. Zip codes within Los Angeles, Monterey and Humboldt counties also showed higher rates of childhood lead exposure. In one Fresno zip code, nearly 14 percent of the children tested had elevated levels of lead.
State health officials caution that the numbers are not an accurate representation of all children, because only those whom health providers believe may be at risk are actually tested.
And the data is a few years old. Department officials say those figures come from 2012, and that the data set is the most recent they have on hand — despite the fact that labs across the state send in 700,000 test results for blood lead levels every year.
“The problem we have right now is we don’t know all the different sources of lead in the environment,” said Assemblyman Bill Quirk (D-Hayward), who sponsored the bill. “I hope it will lead to children who are at higher risk being tested, because pediatricians will ask more questions, and parents will ask more questions.”
Doctors and insurers didn’t want to have to test every single child
Quirk’s initially wanted the new law to require that all young children in children get tested for lead by their health provider. But the insurance industry, the California Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatricians lobbied successfully to remove that requirement from the bill. The medical association objected because universal testing would override a doctor's discretion, and require costly tests even when a doctor determines there is no risk, according to CMA spokeswoman Joanne Adams.
Currently about 80 percent of children on Medi-Cal are tested, Quirk acknowledged. But he points out that while low-income children are most vulnerable to lead exposure (because they often live in old or dilapidated houses), any child can be exposed to lead in a variety of ways—from school water fountains to soil in playgrounds.
“I think that every parent should think about having their child tested, period,” Quirk said. “Just ask your pediatrician to order, then you’ll know if there’s a problem. I have a grandchild that just arrived and I’m going to ask my daughter to have her child tested.”
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