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Most Sacramento area schools do not test drinking water for lead

By: Diana Lambert
February 11, 2017
JJ_Water_Stuff_1.jpgWestport Elementary School in the Ceres Unified School District has a filtration system on campus to remove uranium after high levels were discovered in the well water several years ago. It was one of the schools tested for other metals, including lead, arsenic, copper and zinc, and came up within acceptable levels on all and below detection level on the arsenic. Signs at the various drinking fountains on campus tell students the water is safe to drink. Photo by Jeff Jardine.

Parents may not be aware of this fact: Schools aren’t required to test for lead in their drinking water.

And most campuses don’t.

Sacramento County’s largest school districts don’t regularly test the water coming from their spigots, based on a Bee review of practices across the region. When they do test, it is generally in response to foul color or odors, which are not indicators of lead.

Water agencies are required to test their water at the source, but lead in schools – particularly in aging facilities – often comes from corrosion in lead water taps, interior pipes or water lines.

The health repercussions of elevated lead levels became big news in 2014 after residents in Flint, Mich., fell ill after drinking contaminated tap water. The result was a flurry of testing in schools across the country, as well as legislation proposing mandated water testing in schools.

California has newer schools and a less corrosive water system, according to experts, but problems still exist. Last month, students at Sacramento State returned to school after winter break to find 85 drinking fountains, bottle-filling stations and sinks shut down after elevated lead levels were discovered by students and teachers as part of a school project.

Sacramento County health officials consider the lead levels at CSUS a low health risk, said Olivia Kasirye, the county’s public health officer. The problem of elevated lead levels in water becomes more serious when school populations are younger and school facilities are older than at Sacramento State.

Lead exposure in young children can lead to a reduction in IQ, attention deficiencies and general cognitive impairment, said Iva Hertz-Picciotto, a professor of epidemiology at UC Davis who has published extensive research on environmental exposures. Often, there are no physical signs of lead exposure.

“It seems like they should be testing,” Hertz-Picciotto said of school districts. “If they are finding things, they should be monitoring regularly. They shouldn’t be waiting for a signal like a smell, which could be due to bacteria. ... As long as there are sources (of lead) in the plumbing, or other specific sources of lead, they should be testing.”

Testing is sporadic in the Sacramento region, so it is difficult to know whether lead is a problem at local schools.

Folsom Cordova Unified started testing water last year at schools built before 1960 that have galvanized steel pipes, said spokesman Daniel Thigpen. The testing was prompted by elevated levels of copper, iron and lead in water coming from a classroom tap in 2015 at Cordova Lane Center, which serves preschoolers and special education students. 

Additional tests at the school revealed high lead levels from spigots in a storage room, staff room and a multipurpose room-kitchen. The original parts of the campus were completed in 1959 and had aging water lines that required repair. Follow-up tests showed no signs of lead.

Four of the nine Folsom Cordova schools tested in April and again in November last year all fell below the 15 parts per billion maximum set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to data supplied by the district. Theodore Judah Elementary, Sutter Middle School and Mather Heights tested over the 5 parts per billion limit established by the USDA for bottled water, however.

The district replaced plumbing fixtures at Theodore Judah Elementary and found no subsequent signs of lead. But students at both Mather Heights Elementary and Sutter Middle School students are drinking bottled water while the district completes repairs, according to the district.

Folsom Cordova Unified will test additional schools in the future and will explore taking advantage of free testing, according to its website.

San Juan Unified schools are tested on an “as needed basis,” said spokesman Trent Allen. The district has tested four of its 60 school sites this year and found one sink in a school office with elevated levels of lead. The sink, which was not typically used for drinking water, was removed, Allen said. The lead was traced to a valve in the wall, which was replaced. A new test found lead levels to be normal, he said. 

Sacramento City Unified tested two of its 85 schools in the last two years. Only Alice Birney Elementary School was tested for metals. The test, taken in December from two random classrooms, showed no traces of lead.

Elk Grove Unified tests water at the 10 schools and administration office where it operates wells, as well as from the wells themselves. Twin Rivers Unified currently only tests the well that supplies water to Grant High School regularly. As water purveyors, school districts that operate wells are required to test water at the source. 

Natomas Unified does not routinely test the water at its school sites, which primarily were built after 1980, said spokesman Jim Sanders. 

If young children are attending schools that had problems with lead in the water in the past, Hertz-Picciotto said the campuses should be monitored until school officials can document they have replaced the old plumbing. 

“If faucets and valves are of the old type, you would expect to periodically find lead in the system,” she said.

Testing water can be pricey, about $800 for samples from two classrooms, according to bills sent to Sacramento City Unified. But now districts won’t have to pay. Last month, the State Water Resources Control Board said it would require the state’s more than 3,000 community water systems to offer free lead testing to schools.

The water agencies will bear the cost of collecting drinking water samples, analyzing them and issuing reports, according to the California Department of Education. Sampling locations can include drinking fountains, cafeteria and food preparation areas, and reusable water bottle filling stations. The program extends until Nov. 1, 2019.

2Number of schools out of 85 that Sacramento City Unified School District has tested in the past two years.

There is no requirement for the districts to do the testing, however. And districts struggling to scrape/ together funding to update and build new schools may be reluctant to undertake testing that could result in expensive repairs.

Robert Pierce, deputy superintendent at Elk Grove Unified, agrees with that assessment but said he is happy that the State Water Resources Control Board has initiated the program to test water at schools. “I welcome the opportunity to test the schools and to ensure they are safe. I don’t suspect we would have the problems.”

Local water agencies started contacting school districts last year about testing. In August, the Sacramento County Water Agency contacted all the school districts within its boundaries to test schools for lead and copper. San Juan and Elk Grove Unified took part in the testing.

The Sacramento County Water Agency tested a sampling of Elk Grove Unified schools – an elementary school, a middle school and a high school – within the water agency’s boundaries. The agency also tested three San Juan Unified schools in August. 

Test results showed that all of the schools had lead levels below the threshold established by the EPA. Although all schools passed, a nurse’s office at Mariemont Elementary in San Juan Unified registered above the limit with 28 parts per billion.

Sacramento County Water Agency officials plan to send letters to each school district reminding them about the new program offering free testing, said Forrest Williams, a civil engineer for the agency.

“We are going to sit down with the water purveyors and have conversations with them to see what their approach may be and see what they suggest,” said Pierce, the Elk Grove deputy superintendent. “We may not test every site. It may not be practical to test every site.” 

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