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.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 18, 2017
Sacramento, CA – Yesterday afternoon, the State Water Resources Control Board sent a permit amendment notice to all public water systems in California requiring them to offer free tap water testing for lead contamination to the schools they serve. The move comes after mounting concerns over the lack of requirements for water quality testing in schools, especially after the disaster in Flint, Michigan.
Lead contamination of water typically occurs when pipes, faucets, or fixtures that contain lead corrode. Neither the state nor the federal Lead and Copper Rule requires tap water testing in schools. Under this new policy, school districts will need to request testing from their public water system.
“The state has taken action to protect kids from toxic water, and now we need students, parents, and school officials to take action by actually requesting lead testing at their schools,” said Asha Kreiling of Community Water Center. “And if we want to truly address the problem, the results of this lead testing need to be public, not hidden or difficult to access.”
The permit amendment allows school districts to request lead tests of drinking water fountains and other water sources on school sites. The school’s water provider will be required to test the water and then discuss remediation options if any of the samples show unsafe levels of lead. The State Water Resources Control Board will manage an internal database of the test results.
Consumption of unsafe water is a serious health risk to children as they are more vulnerable than adults to the health effects of exposure to lead and other contaminants.
"As a parent, I want my children to be safe when I send them to school," said Veronica Solis, whose son attends Orosi High School in Tulare County. "I'm so glad this service is available, and I will absolutely be requesting that the school district test the water for lead."
Community Water Center, Rural Community Assistance Corporation, and other advocacy groups are continuing to track the creation of a program at the State Water Board to install safe water access points in schools. California allocated $9.5 million in funding from the 2016-17 state budget to improve access to safe water in schools, some of which may be used to support schools that discover lead contamination as a result of this new testing.
"Rural communities, especially schools, need better access to safe drinking water. The State Water Board's permit amendment is a big step in the right direction, but we are also committed to continued advocacy for increased state funding to help address the root drinking water problems," said Stan Keasling, CEO of Rural Community Assistance Corporation.
Advocates are pleased that the state has taken this step to collect more school water quality data but say more work is still needed to ensure students have safe water. In addition to the need for a public data set on lead in school water, advocates say the state does not adequately track the quality of water access points at schools.
“The extent to which schools face water quality and access challenges at the tap is poorly understood because testing at the tap has been piecemeal, as has reporting," Kreiling said. "We need to do everything we can to ensure our children aren’t getting sick from drinking water, and that means public reporting of this new data on lead in schools as well as investment in a safe drinking water fund that can address operation and maintenance needs in schools and communities.”
Community Water Center (CWC) is a nonprofit environmental justice organization based in California’s San Joaquin Valley, whose mission is to act as a catalyst for community-driven water solutions through organizing, education, and advocacy. CWC’s fundamental goal is to ensure that all communities have access to safe, clean, and affordable water. CWC helps build strategic grassroots capacity to address water challenges in small, rural, low-income communities and communities of color. For more information, visit CWC’s website atwww.communitywatercenter.org and follow us on Twitter at @CWaterC.
If you would would like to learn more about how to test your school's water and get involved in advocacy for safe water in schools, please contact CWC's Asha Kreiling at Asha.Kreiling@CommunityWaterCenter.org or 916-706-3346. We look forward to hearing from you!
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Here are some fast facts on water quality in California schools, taken from our report "Are We Providing Our School Kids Safe Drinking Water? An Analysis of California Schools Impacted by Unsafe Drinking Water."
Read more: Are We Providing Our School Kids Safe Drinking Water? An Analysis of California Schools Impacted by Unsafe Drinking Water, a report by CWC & the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water
Please sign up for our Schools Team below so we can keep you in the loop about upcoming opportunities to test your school's water and get funding for safe water bottle filling stations.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, took a stand for water justice this week when he issued a letter to County and District Superintendents and Charter School Administrators regarding commitment to having clean water in California schools. Torklakson cited CWC's recent report on unsafe drinking water in schools which found many schools are impacted by unsafe drinking water. His letter, the full text of which is below, urged schools to work with water providers to ensure "all students...have access to clean drinking water at all times." CWC thanks Torklakson for his leadership on the issue, and we look forward to increased collaboration with California Department of Education and our local and state water agencies on improved water quality and access in schools.
Dear County and District Superintendents and Charter School Administrators:
I encourage all California schools to consider testing water quality and replace drinking fountains and faucets when necessary.
All students should have access to clean drinking water at all times. Students need fresh water, nutritious meals, and appropriate physical activity to be ready to learn in class.
A May 5, 2016, report by the Community Water Center and the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water noted that some school districts received water from water districts and other sources that, at times, did not meet primary drinking water standards.
The California Department of Education and individual school districts do not maintain records of water suppliers to schools because state and federal law assign that responsibility to water providers. Nonetheless, school districts should know about existing resources that are available to assure water quality. The Association of California Water Agencies provides extensive information about water quality at http://www.acwa.com/content/water-quality/water-quality.
When your school district is upgrading or replacing drinking fountains or other water equipment, contact your local water provider to see if they offer free or reduced-price testing. Water quality reports are also available from your water provider.
The lead content in the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan might raise concerns here in California. California’s water agencies regularly test for lead in their systems and at the tap to comply with both state and federal laws. Water agencies also actively utilize corrosion control measures to prevent any lead that might be present from leaching into tap water.
California reduced the lead content standard for drinking water plumbing from 4 to 0.25 percent in 2010 with “No Lead Law” legislation (AB 1953), effective in 2010.
All schools can work with their local water service to make sure students have access to clean water. Thank you for your attention to this important issue.
Read more here: http://www.cde.ca.gov/nr/el/le/yr16ltr0617.asp
For immediate release:
June 28, 2016
Ari Neumann, Assistant Director
RCAC Community & Environmental Services
(916) 447-9832 ext. 1032
Asha Kreiling, Policy & Communications Analyst
Community Water Center
More than one hundred thousand California students will have access to safe drinking water
Sacramento, Calif. -- Yesterday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the $107.9 billion 2016-2017 state budget and supporting trailer bills including a $10 million additional investment to increase Californians’ access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water.
The Drinking Water Advocates Coalition, which represents rural water advocates, urban water districts, education and children’s organizations, and environmental justice, health and equity organizations applauds the Governor and Legislature for taking these important steps to address California’s drinking water crisis. We especially appreciate the work of Assemblymembers Bloom and Ting for helping secure this much needed funding. Their leadership along with their colleagues from the Senate and staff from all three branches helped to make this a reality.
The investments included in the budget will provide safe drinking water for more than one hundred thousand California students. For many students who live in small, low-income communities impacted by unsafe drinking water, school is the only option for access to free, fresh drinking water, which is essential to health and educational attainment.
The budget includes $9.5 million for improved water access and quality in schools and an additional $500,000 for nonprofit organizations to provide support for outreach and technical assistance. Additionally, $565,000 was allocated for four new positions at the State Water Resources Control Board to improve drinking water monitoring and data collection.
The coalition expressed its gratitude for these critical investments, while pledging to continue its work to advance the Human Right to Water. More than one million Californians are impacted by unsafe drinking water each year. Sustainable solutions are still necessary to address communities’ long-term drinking water needs, including water system operation and maintenance, metering and leak detection for small, low-income communities and households, and funds for low-income Californians reliant on small water systems and private wells impacted by unsafe or unreliable water.
Statements on these budget investments are available here from members of the Drinking Water Advocates Coalition.
Rural Community Assistance Corporation
RCAC is a nonprofit organization that provides training, technical and financial resources and advocacy so rural communities can achieve their goals and visions. Headquartered in West Sacramento, California, RCAC serves rural communities in the western United States and the Pacific islands. RCAC has strong core services and expertise in housing, environmental infrastructure (water, wastewater and solid waste), leadership training, economic development and financing. To find out more about RCAC, visit www.rcac.org.
Community Water Center
The Community Water Center (CWC) is a non-profit environmental justice organization based in California’s San Joaquin Valley, whose mission is to act as a catalyst for community-driven water solutions through organizing, education, and advocacy. CWC’s fundamental goal is to ensure that all communities have access to safe, clean, and affordable water. CWC helps build strategic grassroots capacity to address water challenges in small, rural, low-income communities and communities of color. For more information, visit CWC’s website at www.communitywatercenter.org.
On Monday, Governor Jerry Brown signed a $167 billion state budget that prioritized investments in safe drinking water. Our team at the Community Water Center has been working with the Drinking Water Advocates Coalition, the Administration, and the Legislature to make sure California invests in access to safe, clean, and affordable water, and we are delighted to report that our hard work has paid off through the 2016-17 California budget!
We applaud the Governor and the Legislature for investing $80 million to address California’s drinking water crisis. Funding prioritizes drought disaster relief, emergency drinking water projects, safe water in schools, and better data tracking and reporting, among other programs. Key investments include:
$9.5 million for improved water access and quality in schools and an additional $500,000 for nonprofit organizations to provide support for outreach and technical assistance
$26.7 million for technical assistance and drought disaster relief
$5.4 million (General Fund) and $16 million (Cleanup and Abatement Account) for water rights enforcement and curtailment, and grants for emergency drinking water projects
$12 million for operation of the drought management operations center, water transfer support, and water supply modeling
$10 million for emergency drinking water support for small communities, including addressing private well owners’ needs
$565,000 for four new positions at the State Water Resources Control Board to improve drinking water monitoring and data collection
We applaud the Governor and the Legislature for taking important steps to address California’s drinking water crisis. We especially appreciate the work of Assemblymembers Bloom and Ting for helping secure this much needed funding. Their leadership along with their colleagues from the Senate and staff from all three branches helped to make this a reality.
The Drinking Water Advocates Coalition, which represents rural water advocates, urban water districts, education and children’s organizations, and environmental justice, health and equity organizations, has expressed its gratitude for these critical investments in the 2016-17 budget.
Even as we celebrate these important investments, the Coalition recognizes the vital need to continue our work advancing the Human Right to Water in California. Our efforts to secure additional short- and long-term funding sources to address the unmet drinking water needs of communities across the state are not over. More than one million Californians are impacted by unsafe drinking water each year.
California’s small, low-income communities and communities of color disproportionately face drinking water challenges which have not been adequately addressed through existing funding sources, such as Proposition 1, the Cleanup and Abatement Fund, and the recent one-time allocations in the state budget. An ongoing, sustainable funding source is still necessary to secure safe, clean and affordable drinking water and sanitation (the Human Right to Water) for all Californians. We will continue to advocate for a sustainable funding source to address communities’ long-term drinking water needs, including water system operation and maintenance, metering and leak detection for small, low-income communities and households, and funds for low-income Californians reliant on small water systems and private wells impacted by unsafe or unreliable water.
Years of advocacy by CWC and our allies for increased investment in California’s small, rural communities helped place the draft budget in a strong place for addressing the state’s drinking water needs, and our continued efforts this year further strengthened drinking water investments in the budget. We look forward to working with directly impacted communities to make sure this funding gets put to good use quickly!
Last week, CWC and our partners spoke at a State Capitol briefing hosted by Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia about challenges and opportunities for California schools impacted by unsafe drinking water. Legislative staff, state agency staff, and other policymakers attended the briefing, which we co-sponsored along with our partners at Rural Community Assistance Corporation, Pueblo Unido CDC, Committee for a Better Arvin, and UC Nutrition Policy Institute. Assemblymember Garcia introduced the event and talked about his priority bill, AB 2124, which seeks to address school drinking water challenges. Just before our briefing began, AB 2124 passed unanimously (66-0) off the Assembly Floor, which gave us momentum and enthusiasm moving into the briefing.
Jenny Rempel, CWC's Strategic Communications Coordinator and principal author of EJCW and CWC's recent report, "Are We Providing our School Kids Safe Drinking Water?" moderated the panel and discussed the findings and main policy recommendations from the report. Sergio Carranza of Pueblo Unido CDC and Julia Helmreich of Rural Community Assistance Corporation spoke about the benefits of the Agua4All program in providing interim drinking water benefits to schools and communities. Joaquin Duran, who is an Arvin Union School District parent and a Committee for a Better Arvin member, spoke about his work alongside community members in Arvin to ensure students and ultimately all Arvin residents have clean water to drink. Joaquin spoke passionately about the stress of sending his student to a school with arsenic-contaminated water and his recent relief in knowing that his son at Haven Drive Elementary School now has access to safe drinking water through new Agua4All fountains. Lastly, Christina Hecht, Senior Policy Advisor at the UC Nutrition Policy Institute, provided startling statistics about the number of students that are underhydrated at school. She emphasized the importance of effective access to safe drinking water in school.
We were grateful to have presentations from Assemblymember Garcia and each of the expert panelists, especially as we head into the end of the budget negotiations and attempt to address safe water in schools. CWC will continue working with Assemblymember Garcia's office to ensure his bill, AB 2124, will adequately address the problem of unsafe drinking water in schools. We are also working to ensure that the Budget Conference Committee and the Governor's Office make safe drinking water a priority in the 2016-17 California Budget. Stay tuned for more updates!
By Kimberly Beltran
June 6, 2016
(Calif.) Drinking fountains at some schools in Fresno Unified have been shut off for nearly two years due to lead and uranium contamination in the water.
El Camino Real Elementary School in Arvin, an agricultural community near Bakersfield, has given students durable water bottles and installed state-of-the-art filling stations that filter out harmful levels of arsenic found in the water supply there.
And, just last February, Healdsburg officials announced that they had begun providing bottled water to students last fall after detecting lead contamination at the elementary school’s drinking fountains.
These are but a few of the estimated 980 to 1,690 California schools possibly impacted by unsafe drinking water between 2003 and 2014, according to a new report state lawmakers are using to push for funding to help districts provide clean water.
Last week, the Assembly Budget Committee included in its 2016-17 funding plan $10 million for a grant program to provide filtered water filling stations at more than 100 of the most severely impacted schools – most of which, according to the analysis, are in the state’s Central Valley.
“We see this as something that is a vital need for the state to be addressing,” said Jenny Rempel, spokeswoman for the Community Water Center and lead coordinator of the report that was the subject of a legislative briefing in Sacramento last week. “While the additional funding we are seeking from the general fund is not enough to solve the problem, it would really help to make a dent.”
Multiple legislative attempts over the years to mandate a statewide school water testing system have failed to overcome the barrier of costs, ostensibly hundreds of millions of dollars that would be needed not only implement a new program but to upgrade or replace decades-old infrastructure likely contributing to the contamination.
The 2014 Flint, Michigan water crisis, however, has bolstered efforts both in Congress and in individual states to pass school water quality testing laws. No states require schools to test their water for lead, according to a recent story from the Associated Press about schools in Washington state.
Flint residents – including some 6,000 to 12,000 children – were exposed to dangerous levels of lead when the city in 2014 switched to a new municipal utility that used a different source – the Flint River – to supply water. Water officials failed to add an anti-corrosive material and the improperly treated water supply caused lead to leach from aging pipes into homes, schools and businesses.
Experts agree there is no safe level of lead. In children, the highly-toxic metal can cause lasting problems with growth and development that can affect behavior, hearing and learning as well as slow their growth. In adults, lead poisoning can damage the brain and nervous system, the stomach and the kidneys, according to medical experts. It can also cause high blood pressure and other health problems.
The Environmental Protection Agency sets legal limits on over 90 contaminants in drinking water. The legal limit for a contaminant reflects the level that protects human health and that water systems can achieve using the best available technology. EPA rules also set water-testing schedules and methods that public water systems must follow.
According to the Community Water Center’s Rempel, findings from the group’s new analysis should serve as a wake-up call for state officials.
The 979 to 1,688 schools identified as having possibly been impacted by unsafe drinking water represent up to 24 percent of the schools reviewed in the study, researchers point out. “That means these schools were correlated with a water system that served water that violated a primary safe drinking water standard,” authors wrote.
Half-a-million to more than one million students attended schools whose water systems did not always meet primary safe drinking water standards, according to the report. Bacterial and arsenic violations were the most common types of violations impacting schools, followed by the pesticide DBCP, disinfectant byproducts, and nitrates.
Neither the state nor local jurisdictions maintain a record of school water system providers, so the study matches 6,974 California schools with public water systems through both available public information and spatial correlation. “It then uses spatial analysis to overlay water quality violations to assess the magnitude of water quality violations on schools,” researchers said.
Legislation by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, would authorize a General Fund expenditure of $10 million – money that schools could use install filtered water bottle-filling stations, new drinking water infrastructure, point-of-use or point-of-entry treatment devices or plumbing and repairs.
The investment, supporters note, could provide funding for roughly 1,000 filtered water bottle-filling stations, enough for each of the 103 to 144 schools impacted in 2014 to install seven to nine safe water access points.
The analysts also pointed out that school water-quality problems could actually be worse than the report indicates depending upon the amount of lead and copper previously used in pipes and drinking fountains. These contaminants were not included in the study because there are no state-wide monitoring or tracking programs for these distribution system hazards in schools.
Some of the other findings in the report included:
Six to 9 percent of schools were impacted in multiple years, some for a decade or more. The number of schools impacted by recurring bacterial violations (i.e., the water systems serving them experienced bacterial violations in more than one year) was between 254 and 332; 177 to 207 schools were impacted by recurring arsenic violations.
While the problem exists statewide, the Central Valley had both the greatest number and highest percentage of schools in the region impacted by unsafe drinking water. One in four schools in the Central Valley and one in three schools in the Tulare Lake region were impacted. Many of these students also suffer from other forms of pollution including some of the worst air quality in America and other environmental health hazards.
The 320 schools that still operate their own water systems (e.g., a single well run by the school) were more likely to have a water quality violation and to have recurring violations than schools receiving water from larger community water systems.
Schools impacted by unsafe drinking water had higher percentages of Hispanic and Latino students and socioeconomically disadvantaged students.
State agencies do not currently have access to sufficient information to assess the magnitude of the problem and ensure that children have safe drinking water at school.
In addition to recommending that the legislature appropriate funding for water filtration systems, authors of the study also call on the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Department of Education to work together to develop a monitoring and tracking system that includes testing for lead and copper.
They also say decision-makers should target resources to schools and small water systems to help them consolidate into larger regional systems that can more reliably provide safe water.
The Community Water Center, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Visalia, produced the school water survey in partnership with the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, which is based in Sacramento.