- A law signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown last October requires schools to conduct a one-time test by July 2019 on only one to five frequently used water fountains at a school, and to inform parents and take corrective action only if lead concentrations are greater than 15 parts per billion — a limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that critics say was adopted long ago, based on the level of lead regulators believed water utilities could measure and address at that time and not on safety measures, EdSource reports.
- However, the American Academy of Pediatrics, public health advocates and the consumer group CALPIRG say no lead level is safe for children, suggesting that the standard be dropped to one part per billion since higher levels can increase lead concentrations in the blood, limit brain development in children, and put them at higher risk of behavioral issues.
- Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, the San Diego Democrat who pushed for the current testing law, said she feels all taps should be tested and replaced if lead levels are higher than five parts per billion, but that the more lenient law was a compromise reached after school districts and the California School Boards Association expressed concerns that a lower lead level would create greater repair costs for school districts.
While schools are meant to be safe havens for children and a place for them to learn and grow, lead concentrations in the water may be contributing to mental, developmental and health issues in students. The EPA, which officially recommends the 15ppb level that California is using as its standard, states on its website that “Even low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in behavior and learning problems; lower IQ and hyperactivity; slowed growth, hearing problems, and anemia.”
The Food and Drug Administration uses 5ppb as a guideline instead, the level required for bottled water. School leaders also need to consider that water consumption in schools is not just from water fountains; it is used in preparing school meals as well, so school water consumption may be greater than they think.
The issue is not just a California concern: it affects schools across the nation. Many school districts do not even tests for lead levels in water, but those that do often discover major issues. Drinking water in all 106 district schools in Detroit last month was shut off after tests showed high lead and copper levels. Baltimore City Schools, the Cleveland Municipal School District, and the Hillsborough School District in Florida are just some of the other school districts that have faced major lead issues in water in recent years.
Water is not the only lead concern for schools. A 2016 article on the issue published by USA Today reported that a study of lead exposure in children in Rochester, N.Y, revealed that about 20% of lead exposure was attributed to water, 10% to 15% was caused by contaminated soil, and 20% to 30% came from other sources such as paint dust — another concern for aging schools. The cost of addressing these is issues is too great for most school districts to bear on their own and often requires additional funding through grants or state and local funding. Once lawmakers come to see the issue as an environmental and health care concern rather than just an education concern, purse strings may open.