Results from California’s lead testing in schools emphasize the need for more comprehensive lead removal policies

By Pranav Moudgalya, Water Policy Intern
(Pranav is a Junior at University High School in Irvine, CA)

The discussion on lead contamination in drinking water was brought to the forefront of our national consciousness by the crisis in Flint, Michigan. However, despite subsequent federal regulations aimed at removing lead from drinking water (such as revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule) and concentrated state efforts to replace lead service lines, the issue of lead contamination is far from resolved. Indeed, in America, lead contamination persists as both an equity and a health concern. While lead service lines exist in a diverse range of communities of varying income, violations of lead rules and non-compliant systems are highly concentrated around both low-income communities and communities of color. Lead is also an extremely harmful contaminant and is associated with cardiovascular disease, increased blood pressure and incidence of hypertension, decreased kidney function, and reproductive problems in both men and women.

In children, the consumption of lead contaminated water poses an even greater diversity of health risks. Even low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in behavioral issues and lower IQ, learning problems, slowed growth, hyperactivity, anemia, and hearing problems. In rare cases, the ingestion of lead can cause seizures, coma and even death. Health economist Corwin Rhyan summarizes the impact of these health harms to cost the nation as much as $84 billion each year, measured in terms of future earnings, as well as additional education, health, and incarceration costs. Certainly, lead in drinking water is one of the most pressing health concerns for children.

How does lead manage to affect thousands of children nationwide? One culprit is the American school system. A 2018 Government Accountability Office report quantifies that roughly 15 percent of the nation’s school districts found elevated lead levels in school drinking water, and many parents are oblivious to this unsettling reality. Schools are filled with various water fixtures such as fountains, faucets, and filters, all of which can carry lead and lead-based compounds at hazardous levels. Thus, absent strict and scrutinous testing for lead violations, and the supplementary action to facilitate solutions, lead contamination in schools will endure. Indeed, a report by the California Public Interest Research Group finds that “current regulations are too weak to protect our children from lead-laden water at school.” Despite the bleak outlook that many industry experts, government officials, and scholars have on the prospect of states passing efficacious policies to remove lead from schools, many states are taking action.

California Assembly Bill 746 (AB 746), which went into effect on January 1, 2018, requires California community water systems to test lead levels in drinking water at all California public, K-12 schools that were constructed before January 1, 2010 by July 1, 2019. AB 746 also requires community water systems to report their findings to the schools if lead concentrations exceed a certain level and to notify the parents and guardians of the pupils who attend the school site. The bill also mandates that the water systems take immediate steps to shut down all fountains and faucets where excess lead levels may exist. Certainly, AB 746 is a step in the right direction. However, are policies such as AB 746 effective in their implementation and policy design, and more importantly, are they enough to guarantee safe and equitable drinking standards for all children? A study by Umunna et al. published in December of 2020 examined this very question.

The study analyzed a random sample of 240 California public and charter schools to “examine school-level factors associated with failure to meet lead-testing deadlines” after the implementation of AB 746. The key results of this study are:

  • Schools which serve high proportions of racial/ethnic minority students are more likely to receive water from systems with historical drinking water standard violations.
  • Around 3 percent of the schools that tested for lead contamination had at least one sample that exceeded 15 ppb, the California state lead action level.
  • Around 16 percent of the schools that tested for lead contamination had at least one sample that exceeded 5 ppb, the federal bottled water standard for lead.

The study also found that some schools test only one tap in a school, and are thus less likely to capture the risk of lead contamination in drinking water compared to schools which do much more rigorous testing. Finally, the study reports that rural schools are less likely to test for lead compared to city or urban schools.

The data is certainly clear: lead is still present in the drinking water of California’s schools and poses a definite health risk to millions of students in the state. Despite the best efforts of AB 746 to remediate lead contamination, the bill does not go far enough in addressing lead contamination in schools.

First and foremost, the bill fails to provide financial assistance to schools and systems which do have lead contamination violations. The rejection of California Assembly Bill 48 (a bill which would have greatly increased the allocation of state funding to fix non-compliant water systems) is indicative of the fact that the state has failed to prioritize the funding of lead removal projects, placing the financial burden of fixing unsafe water infrastructure entirely on communities, many of which are low-income. In fact, only 11 percent of the 13,000 K-12 schools in California signed up for free testing after it became available in early 2019. Why? One good reason may be that communities which know that they will have lead violations are hesitant to report lead contamination if it means they will have to bear the cost of expensive infrastructure repairs. “There is an aversion to both the monetary cost of fixing the problem and also to the public relations cost of fixing the problem,” says Yanna Lambrinidou, a researcher at Virginia Tech who studies drinking water in schools.

Additionally, the bill fails to mandate any action on behalf of schools where lead in drinking water is at or below 15 parts per billion. While 15 ppb may be the federal standard, both the EPA and CDC agree that there is no known safe level of lead in drinking water for children and the Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) for lead is zero. This dangerous leniency is exacerbated by the fact that AB 746 only required schools to conduct one round of lead testing by July 1, 2019. While other states require schools to continue testing at regular intervals ranging from annually to once every six years, AB 746 fails to implement this regularity. Additionally, the bill does not explicitly state how parents/guardians should be notified of lead violations at their child’s school. Leaving the communication of such vital data in vague terms may afford schools ways to not take action, even in the face of a violation, and such ambiguity is intolerable.

Despite these concerns, AB 746 – with some modifications – is a positive step to make a lead-free future a reality. The following are concrete policy recommendations which the State of California and other states may implement to greatly reduce the risk of lead contamination in public schools:

  • Work to completely remove lead from schools by replacing fountains, faucets and other parts containing lead with certified lead-free replacements.
  • Provide guaranteed state funding to fix lead-contaminated water infrastructure in schools.
  • Adopt a stricter lead standard of 5 parts per billion, which is already the standard for bottled water.
  • Mandate regular testing once every few years, if not many times a year.
  • Develop robust ways to effectively communicate lead violation results with parents and students.
  • Increase transparency of lead level data and status of repair projects on publicly accessible sites.

Children in K-12 schools may only constitute just under 15 percent of the American population, but they are 100 percent of our future. We must do better, and we must act now.

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