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A recent string of reports have revealed lead-contaminated drinking water at several San Diego area elementary schools. Just last week, a therapy dog alerted school officials to tainted water in a charter school classroom.
When dogs are sounding the alarm about lead-contaminated water, it’s pretty clear that more needs to be done in California to protect kids from this serious threat to their health.
Pediatricians across the country stress that lead is highly toxic, and that there is no safe level of lead exposure for our kids. Lead impairs how kids learn, grow and behave. Even small exposures to lead can cause permanent damage to children’s cognitive development. Recent research shows that, even at blood levels lower than 5 micrograms per deciliter (a level once thought to be safe), lead can still cause diminished intellectual and academic abilities, higher rates of neurobehavioral disorders such as ADHD, and poor growth in children.
And water fountains at school are a known source of lead exposure for kids. Far too often, the water delivery systems at schools are lined with lead — from the pipes to the plumbing and fixtures. When water travels through lead pipes and plumbing, that lead can leach into the very water that kids drink during recess and lunch.
What makes the recent cases of lead-tainted water at California schools so alarming is that these incidents could just be the tip of the iceberg. Many schools in California do not test water at their taps because testing is not mandatory for schools in our state. Moreover, when schools do test, the public often only hears about lead levels above 15 parts per billion, despite the fact that there is no safe level of lead for children.
Furthermore, new data emerging from other states should give us additional cause for concern here in California. For example, nearly half of the 40,000 tests conducted at schools in Massachusetts last year showed some level of lead in water.
This data is particularly alarming, given that tests, even when properly done, can fail to detect lead in water. Lead particles do not break off of pipes at a constant rate over time. Rather, lead leaching is a highly variable process. This means it is quite possible for the same water tap at a school to pass a test four times and then fail on the fifth.
Given the high toxicity of lead, we cannot wait for tests to confirm that kids have already been exposed to this potent neurotoxin. By then, it is already too late.
No parent should ever have to worry about lead exposures when they drop their kids off at school.
California must take preventive action to ensure every single child is truly protected from this serious health threat, and the most health-protective policy for children is to remove the source of lead contamination, that is to replace the lead pipes and plumbing at our schools and preschools.
There is no doubt that this kind of water infrastructure project would cost a significant amount of money and take considerable time to complete. Until it can be done, the most immediate and cost-effective way schools can protect children is to use filters certified to remove lead.
A new bill, AB 885 by Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, D-Baldwin Park, takes this exact approach. This bill would help prevent lead exposures by requiring schools to install certified filters on taps used for drinking or cooking. Furthermore, the bill requires schools to develop a plan for replacing lead-bearing parts in their water delivery systems, and it requires periodic water testing at every public school in California.
San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher has also committed to help tackle this problem by introducing a bill to make testing mandatory at schools.
By requiring filters and testing, we can help ensure that every child in California has safe, lead-free water to drink at school. It’s hard to imagine a more fundamental public health protection for our kids.
Pfeifle, Ph.D., is a public health advocate with the California Public Interest Research Group.
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