California gets a ‘C’ for efforts to get the lead out

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. – In a report released Thursday, CALPIRG Education Fund gave California a “C” grade for its middling policies aimed at stopping pervasive lead contamination of schools’ drinking water. The third edition of CALPIRG Education Fund’s Get The Lead Out study lowered California’s grade from the C+ the Golden State earned in the 2019 edition. While California is home to some of the strongest local school policies for safer drinking water for kids and it’s one of the first states to require lead testing of school drinking water, the state still has a lot of work to do to get the lead out. 

“School is for learning and playing — not a daily dose of lead-tainted water,” said Jenn Engstrom, state director of CALPIRG Education Fund. “While California has taken several steps in the right direction, protecting our kids’ health requires prevention at every drinking water tap — and our state doesn’t make the honor roll.”

Thanks to a 2017 state law, California schools were required to test for lead in drinking water and the most recently reported data revealed more than 2,100 school drinking water fountains tested positive for lead across 1,300 schools. However, the state is only required to share information about lead levels above 5 parts per billion (ppb), even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 1 ppb in drinking water for children, so the problem is likely worse. Child care centers have also been required to test for lead, but the results are not yet public. 

“Testing is a good first step, but what we really need is prevention,” said Engstrom.

The report notes that California has taken one precedent-setting step towards preventing future lead contamination: AB100 (Assemblymember Holden) requires new faucets to meet the most stringent standard in the nation for minimal lead released to water. 

But for now, statistics suggest that existing fountains and faucets in California schools are likely to have lead in them.  That’s where the current California law falls short. It only requires remediation when lead levels are found above 15 ppb, even though lead levels as low as 1 ppb can be harmful to children. 

“Lead damages kids’ brains, promotes ADHD and shaves off IQ points. There is no safe amount,” said Ron Staff, M.D., Assistant clinical professor of medicine at the Florida State University College of Medicine in Tallahassee.

A 2023 bill (AB 249, Assemblymember Chris Holden) would improve California’s school lead testing law, requiring testing at every outlet rather than just a few per school, and requiring remediation at a level of 5 ppb. 

This legislation is a step in the right direction, and its passage would increase California’s grade from CALPIRG Education Fund. However, lead concentrations in water are highly variable, so even proper sampling can miss lead contamination or fail to capture its full extent.  Consequently, these “test and fix” policies leave lead risks in place at many faucets or fountains where our kids drink water every day.

CALPIRG Education Fund’s report highlights the work done by San Diego Unified School District, which is on track to install filtered water stations in all schools. This eliminates a common source of lead (fountains replaced) and also captures lead coming from plumbing or pipes. Oakland and Berkeley Unified School Districts have taken similar steps. CALPIRG Education Fund strongly recommends more schools follow their lead.

“Rather than wait for more testing to show that our kids have been drinking lead, we should be doing everything we can now to get the lead out,” said Engstrom.