Get the lead out: California lawmaker wants to require schools to test for lead

Three Sacramento-area elementary schools exceeded federal standards after submitting to voluntary review

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How much lead should kids be able to drink at school? That’s one question state lawmakers are considering this week.

Assembly Bill 746, a bill by San Diego-area Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, would require schools to test for lead in drinking water fountains for the first time. If too much lead is detected, schools would be forced to shut down their water systems, notify parents within seven days and provide information on how to get their children tested by physicians.

Most schools in California aren’t required to test their drinking water for lead. Young kids are particularly vulnerable. While a minimal dose might have little effect on an adult, children who have ingested small amounts of lead have been shown to experience lower IQs, behavioral and learning issues, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Three Sacramento-area elementary schools were recently found to have exceeded federal safety limits for lead in water. In January, Sacramento State University students from the environmental services and chemistry departments uncovered dangerous lead levels in more than 40 of the campus’ water fountains. The discovery prompted university officials to take those fountains offline and repeat the students’ testing of 782 sources of drinking water.

On May 8, Vice President for Administration Ming-Tung “Mike” Lee announced the release of two third-party water quality tests, acknowledging, “It took a few weeks longer than expected.”

While the university works on repairing or permanently removing the contaminated sources, Lee stressed that no dining-related sources tested above federal safety levels. “As mentioned in prior messages, bathroom sinks and showers were not tested, and we continue to advise you not to drink from them,” Lee’s message added.

Fletcher has said the lead crisis in Flint, Mich., provided the “wake-up call” that inspired her bill.

“Right now, testing is purely voluntary,” Fletcher noted. “We want to ensure our schools are not poisoning our children.”

At a Senate Education Committee hearing last week, the question of how much lead kids can safely be exposed to held up the committee.

“Schools are going to talk about their burden costs,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician representing parts of Sacramento and Yolo counties. “But there is a cost overall to exposure to lead—for schools it’s not just about the cost of the water system; it’s the cost of kids losing IQ points and having behavioral problems over chronic lead exposure.”

Lead is measured by parts per billion in water. If a test shows more than 15 parts per billion, or ppb, which is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration standard for tap water, the agency requires municipalities take steps to reduce those levels, usually by updating water systems, many of which are decades old. But Pan and others stressed there is no “safe” threshold of lead in drinking water, only acceptable levels.

Fletcher’s bill would allow up to 15 ppb, but lawmakers discussed lowering the threshold to 5 ppb, the EPA standard for bottled water, or lower. The American Academy of Pediatrics calls for 1 ppb in school water systems.

The Senate Environmental Quality Committee was set to weigh in on the question on Wednesday. The bill has already passed the Assembly. If the Senate committee amends the bill to place a lower lead threshold for younger students, the legislation will require both Senate approval and a return to the Assembly.

CALPIRG, a consumer protection nonprofit funded by University of California students, found three North Highlands elementary schools had lead over EPA limits in water from one tap each in May: Oakdale at 16 ppb; Warren A. Allison at 21 ppb; and Sierra View at 27 ppb.

The tests were the result of a voluntary State Water Resources Control Board program that began in January. Less than 10 percent of California schools requested tests.