The results are in: At more than 1,300 California schools, there’s lead in the drinking water

Many California schools will remain closed this fall due to COVID-19. When kids finally do return to class, we need to make sure they aren’t returning to another health threat: lead-contaminated drinking water. Why not remediate the situation now, while schools stand empty of students and teachers?

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Aaron Colonnese
Content Creator

Author: Aaron Colonnese

Content Creator

 

Started on staff: 2020
B.A., Brown University

Aaron writes and designs materials with the Creative Team for The Public Interest Network for U.S. PIRG. Aaron lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, and spends his spare time playing drums and going for long walks.

Many California schools will remain closed this fall due to COVID-19. When kids finally do return to class, we need to make sure they aren’t returning to another health threat: lead-contaminated drinking water. Why not remediate the situation now, while schools stand empty of students and teachers?

What happened: In July, our research partners at CALPIRG Education Fund released an updated interactive map showing schools across California at which high levels of lead were detected in the drinking water.

According to the latest publicly available data, 53 percent of reporting school districts tested positive for lead — totaling more than 2,100 drinking water fountains at 1,300 schools across the state, in urban, suburban and rural areas alike.

Why it matters: Medical experts estimate that more than 24 million American kids will lose IQ points due to lead exposure. That’s tragic. Research also shows that many of these kids will be exposed to lead via their own school’s drinking water — in the very place they go to learn and grow. That’s unacceptable.

In recent years, even the limited available data has shown drinking water laced with lead at schools and early childhood programs across California. One drinking water fountain at Joseph M. Simas Elementary School in Hanford found lead at 2,000 parts per billion (ppb). Coyote Ridge Elementary in Roseville reported lead at 1,100 ppb in one outlet, and St. Theresa's school in Oakland reported 2,000 ppb in one classroom water fountain. For reference, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a health standard of no more than 1 ppb of lead in water. One. Not 1,000. Not 2,000. One.

In all likelihood, these confirmed cases only scratch the surface of this problem. Most schools have at least some lead in their pipes, plumbing or fixtures — and where there is lead, there is risk of contamination. 

CALPIRG Education Fund has been conducting regular research to try and assess the true extent of California’s lead contamination problem. In 2017, the first edition of our “Get The Lead Out” report gave California a grade of F for its efforts to address the issue. In the 2019 edition, California’s grade raised to a C+ — an improvement, but still not nearly good enough. 

The big picture: We need only look to the crisis that unfolded in Flint, Michigan, in 2014 for a tragic reminder of the dangers of lead exposure. The drinking water of an entire city had been contaminated with lead, and more than 8,000 children under the age of six were directly exposed.

Now we know this toxic threat extends well beyond Flint. As the data on the extent of school lead contamination continues to grow, CALPIRG, CALPIRG Education Fund and our national network have built an aggressive campaign to address the issue from two sides. We’re funding comprehensive research so we can understand the scope of the problem, and we’re calling on leaders at the local, state and federal levels to take action to get the lead out of school drinking water.

What we're doing about it: When we say “get the lead out,” we mean literally removing lead-bearing parts from schools’ drinking water systems — from service lines to faucets and fixtures — and then installing filters certified to remove lead at every tap used for drinking or cooking. And when better to do that than now, with schools shuttered due to COVID-19?

In recent months, we’ve worked with the San Diego Unified, Oakland Unified and Los Angeles Unified school districts to eliminate lead contamination in their schools. In particular, San Diego Unified’s Clay Elementary became the pilot school to determine the best ways to get lead-free drinking water. There, they tore out old fixtures and replaced them with new lead-free fountains and water filling stations. And it worked — the drinking water at Clay Elementary now tests below 1 ppb, and San Diego Unified has developed a plan to expand this model throughout the school district.

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CALPIRG Public Health Advocate Laura Deehan calls for San Diego Unified School District to adopt a lead remediation standard of 1 ppb at a press conference in San Diego. Credit: Staff


How you can help: We need your voice if we’re going to be able to ensure safe school drinking water for all children. You can help by making sure your leaders take this issue as seriously as you do. Add your name to our petition urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to take strong action against lead in school drinking water. 

We’ve investigated the problem, we’ve collected the data, and we’ve shown that our solutions can work. Now it’s time to act — because our children’s health is worth it.

Learn more:

Report: Get The Lead Out (2019)

Back To School Action Toolkit

Aaron Colonnese
Content Creator

Author: Aaron Colonnese

Content Creator

 

Started on staff: 2020
B.A., Brown University

Aaron writes and designs materials with the Creative Team for The Public Interest Network for U.S. PIRG. Aaron lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, and spends his spare time playing drums and going for long walks.