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Kids are back in school, and Oakland Unified is still putting them at risk of lead exposure. This has to stop now.
Since the school year began, 45 Oakland schools and day care centers have had at least one water tap where lead has been found in the water. That’s a problem because there is no safe level of lead for kids. Even small exposures to lead can permanently damage children’s growth and development, including reduced IQ and higher rates of neurobehavioral issues, including ADHD.
Our kids should never be exposed to any amount of lead, especially at school, a place where they are supposed to learn, grow and thrive.
While the district has begun to address the worst problems it has found, it has yet to show the kind of commitment it will take to truly protect our kids from this serious health threat.
First, the district still hasn’t committed to test every water tap for lead. If you know you have a problem at some fountains, why wouldn’t you test the water at every one? Trying to save a few extra bucks on testing could leave kids at risk of lead exposure.
The district is also still allowing kids to drink from water fountains where lead has been found below 15 parts per billion, even though pediatricians say that level is unsafe for kids.
The district should instead adopt a zero tolerance policy for lead in drinking water. It should allow no more than 1 part per billion of lead in its drinking water, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It should test every water tap for lead, and take appropriate action when lead is found, including encouraging concerned parents to get their kids’ blood tested.
And then, over the long-term, the district should commit to replacing all lead-bearing parts in its pipes, plumbing and fixtures, since we know that’s the source of contamination. Until that can be done, filters should be installed on all taps used for drinking or cooking.
We realize the district has made mid-year budget cuts and has some real financial challenges to address in the coming years. And we know that poses some limitations on what the district can pay for. But poisoning kids with lead is not a viable path out of a budget crisis.
We also know that there are funding options the district could pursue to pay for the fixes needed. The State Water Board is now taking applications for a grants program that is solely dedicated to providing funds for schools with lead issues.
It’s also possible that funds raised from Oakland’s new soda tax could help pay for school programs to promote water consumption and ensure that drinking water is safe. And finally, the school district’s own bond measure, Measure J, could be used to pay for some of the infrastructure fixes needed to provide safe, lead-free water. The district should be urgently pursuing all of these funding options.
But one thing is clear: Oakland Unified must fix the problem. Children are far too vulnerable to the effects of lead exposure. Predominantly black and brown communities like Fruitvale, where 7 percent of children recently tested positive for high blood lead levels, and West Oakland, where high levels of lead were found in a school gym last year, shouldn’t have to worry about the water their kids drink at school. No community should.
When the school board meets Wednesday night, its members will have an opportunity to show just how committed they are to safeguarding our children’s health and future success.
Emily Rusch is the executive director of the California Public Interest Research Group. Dr. Vicki Alexander is the founder of Healthy Black Families, Inc.
The Get the Lead Out coalition at the Oakland Unified School Board meeting on January 24, 2018.
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