Lead-Free Schools: Steps forward in Oakland but more work to do

What could be more basic than providing clean, safe drinking water for our kids in schools? On Wednesday night the Oakland Unified School Board meeting voted to approve a new drinking water policy to help identify and remove sources of lead exposure to kids in drinking water fountains. 

All children deserve clean, safe drinking water in their schools. Now one of California’s largest school districts is trying to make that happen. Last Wednesday night, the Oakland Unified School Board voted to approve a new drinking water policy to help identify and remove sources of lead exposure to kids in drinking water fountains. Here are the stories from KRON and the East Bay Times.  

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than 24 million children in America lose IQ points due to exposure to even low levels of lead. It’s disheartening that in 2018, in the wealthiest country in the world, many of our children are regularly drinking water with  lead —a known, potent neurotoxin— in it, despite the fact that we have effective, affordable ways to prevent that from happening. Our kids should never be exposed to any amount of lead, especially at a school, a place where they are supposed to learn, grow and thrive.

The newly-approved policy expands testing of water fountains throughout the school district and requires school officials to shut off and fix water outlets that test positive for more than 5 parts per billion (ppb) of lead. At least 43 schools in Oakland Unified have had at least one outlet test positive for at least 5ppb of lead since testing began last year. At one early child care center, Centro Infatil CDC, testing results indicated 256 ppb of lead at one source. That makes my stomach churn just thinking about it.

While the new lead policy is better than none, unfortunately, it falls short of the 1ppb standard recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and adopted by Berkeley Unified School District. District staff told the board they plan to share results down to 1ppb of lead with the public.

We plan to hold district staff to that commitment, which isn’t in the written policy, as well as another verbal commitment to test every faucet used for drinking and cooking. The science is clear:  there is no safe level of lead, and even low levels of lead can cause permanent damage to our children. Lead impairs the central and peripheral nervous system, and causes learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.

CALPIRG Education Fund launched the Oakland Get the Lead Out coalition back in November 2017, and has been proud to work alongside organizations including Healthy Black Families, Inc., Center for Environmental Health, Color of Change, Green for All, Smart Oakland, and volunteers from the Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club to urge Oakland Unified to adopt a comprehensive policy for lead-free drinking water. Larry Brooks, who runs the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program for Alameda County, has been an instrumental ally and a staunch advocate for both preventing exposure and educating parents about the importance of testing children’s blood lead levels.

Over the long-term, the district should commit to replacing all lead-bearing parts in its pipes, plumbing and fixtures, since we know that’s the main source of contamination. Until that can be done, the district should filter its water. State grants, the Oakland soda tax funding, and infrastructure bonds all could provide funding for filters and other solutions.

Oakland Unified is not alone in this challenge. California recently required water agencies to test school water for lead, and as those test results come back, school districts across the state are learning that they could be exposing  kids to lead. I have yet to hear of a school district that has perfect results, because most school districts have at least some aging infrastructure, and until 2010, California allowed builders to install pipes and plumbing fixtures that contained some lead in them.

Going forward, CALPIRG Education Fund is committed to:

1) Keep working with and pushing Oakland Unified to ensure every drinking water source in the school district is lead-free. This week’s vote was only one step in a longer process.

2) Urge other school districts across the state adopt policies to prevent childhood exposure to lead in school drinking water.

3) Advocate for a stronger lead standards statewide at the California State Water Board. Right now, schools can allow kids to drink water that has less than 15ppb of lead from fountains , even though we know that even low levels of lead can harm children. And current testing protocols could easily miss sources of contamination. That needs to change. At a February 2018 State Water Board hearing, the board voted to make revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule a priority in 2018.

Let’s guarantee safe water in our schools. Our children’s future is worth the investment.

To learn more: 

CALPIRG Education Fund’s 2017 report: Get the Lead Out: Ensuring Safe Drinking Water for our Kids in Schools  
Read AB 746, a 2017 state law authored by Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher to require water agencies to do some water testing for lead in all schools. While we support the requirement to do testing, nfortunately, the law only requires schools to report and act on lead above 15ppb, which is not a health-based standard. 
The California State Water Board’s site on Lead Samping of Drinking Water in SchoolsAs of March 2, 2018, about 2310 schools had reported results from testing out of a total of about 13,000 schools statewide.
Our “Back to School Toolkit” for parents who want to advocate for safe water in their own schools. 




Photos: Oakland Get the Lead Out coalition members at a January 2018 hearing where we delivered a 1,000 petitions to the Board asking them to adopt stronger policies to remove lead in drinking water, CALPIRG Education Fund Executive Director Emily Rusch testifying at the February 28 board meeting when the policy was adopted, images of Oakland Unified School Board Director Roseann Torres and Green For All Director Vien Truong speaking at the press conference launching the campaign on November 1, 2017. 


Emily Rusch

Vice President and Senior Director of State Offices, The Public Interest Network

Emily is the senior director for state organizations for The Public Interest Network. She works nationwide with the state group directors for PIRG and Environment America to help them build stronger organizations and achieve greater success. Emily was the executive director for CALPIRG from 2009-2021, overseeing a myriad of CALPIRG campaigns to protect public health, protect consumers in the marketplace, and promote a robust democracy. Emily works in our Oakland, California, office, and loves camping, hiking, gardening and cooking with her family.