Almost two years of tests have revealed excessive levels of lead in drinking fountains and faucets in California’s schools. But state officials and an environmental organization can’t agree on how pervasive the problem is.
State officials this week said the testing, ordered by the Legislature in 2017, showed lead in excessive concentrations in the water coming out of at least 291 different drinking fountains, faucets and other fixtures in California’s K-12 schools. In most cases, the fixtures have been fixed or removed, state records show.
The test results, which are still trickling in, come shortly after Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislators have agreed on a plan to fix contaminated drinking water systems around the state.
In Fresno County, a total of 12 fountains or other fixtures exceeded the state’s threshold for excessive concentrations, according to records kept by the State Water Resources Control Board. All were brought into compliance, according to those records.
However, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group said the lead problem is considerably more widespread. Using a stricter definition of what’s allowable, the group said it was told by state officials that lead in excessive amounts turned up at 1,166 schools, out of 6,595 schools that have reported test results so far.
Susan Little, the organization’s senior advocate in California, said lead in drinking water can lead to “dire effects on young children, even at low levels,” including behavioral problems and attention deficit disorders. “Those faucets are the primary culprit.” Lead typically shows up in corroded pipes and old fixtures.
The disagreement stems from the state’s efforts to track lead concentrations in campus drinking water. In early 2017, the state water board launched an initiative to encourage the approximately 9,000 K-12 schools in California to test their water for lead. A few months later, by enacting AB 746, the Legislature ordered testing at all schools built before 2010.
The Legislature said any fountain or fixture with lead concentrations exceeding 15 parts per billion – the same threshold set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – had to be shut down.
Out of more than 33,000 fixtures for which results are available, 291 exceeded the threshold, according to the state’s data. All but 44 have been fixed or removed, state officials said.
In Fresno Unified, district officials have said that the six lead findings in FUSD are likely the result of individual pipes and fixtures, not the quality of the water itself.
After a Fresno Bee story reporting the levels of lead found at Fresno Unified’s Addams Elementary, Fresno city spokesman Mark Standriff tweeted that the city’s water is ultimately safe.
“Fountains are already tested and, as you well know, Fresno’s water supply is clean, safe, reliable & has always met state/federal standards for lead & copper,” the tweet read.
State officials said they were encouraged by the overall results.
“Less than 1%, that’s really good,” said Kurt Souza, the state board’s assistant deputy director. “Our schools have done a really good job of replacing old fixtures and stuff.”
Although testing was supposed to be completed by Monday, the state’s records lag by several weeks and are only complete through mid-April.
Little, however, said the 15 parts-per-billion threshold is too loose. She noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a maximum of 1 part per billion. The federal Centers for Disease Control says there’s no safe level of lead in children.
“Lead is one of the most studied toxic metals out there, and the science is mounting that even these low levels are problematic,” Little said.
The budget signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom appropriates $130 million to help clean up contaminated water systems, although Little said it wasn’t clear if any of that would go to address the school lead problems.
A separate bill still pending in the Legislature, AB 48, would create a $13 billion bond to tackle various school projects, including lead in drinking water. However, the funds would be limited to schools where the lead concentration exceeds 15 parts per billion – the same test used by the state already.
Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler
Fresno Bee staff contributed to this report