In an email to the Environmental Working Group, the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) confirmed that 1,166 out of 6,595 schools that participated in a recent test had at least one fountain that served water with more than 5 parts per billion (ppb) of lead. While any level of exposure to lead is unsafe, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that water from school fountains should not exceed 1 ppb of lead. Additionally, many of these schools did not test all their drinking water fountains or faucets of potable water.
By law, all schools built before 2010 in California were required to test their drinking water for lead contamination by July 1, 2019. Despite the mandate, however, the law does not require schools to test all their fountains and faucets with potable water. State law generally requires that schools have at least one fountain for every 150 students. Most schools are reporting between one and five tests only, so not all schools are testing all their sources of drinking water.
"One-fifth of all K-12 schools have found at least one faucet on their campus that delivers a dose of lead to the children who use them," stated Susan Little, senior advocate for government affairs for EWG in California.
"These fountains are placed in areas easily reached by children, and many of the fountains haven’t been cleared. Parents should be concerned that their children might be drinking lead during recess."
As for the sources of the lead, the SWRCB clarified that lead, which rarely ever occurs naturally in the state's drinking water sources, may become present in drinking water when water passes through older plumbing fixtures or solder containing lead. Additionally, for the longest time, schools served by a public water system were not required to test their water for lead under the current Lead and Copper rule.
Lead poisoning occurs over an extended period of time as lead builds up in the body over a period of months, or even years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious problems; in large enough does, lead poisoning is fatal.
Children under the age of six are some of the most vulnerable individuals to lead poisoning – it can cause negative effects on their mental and physical development. In addition to developmental delays and learning difficulties, other signs and symptoms of lead poisoning in children include appetite loss, weight loss, irritability, constipation, sluggishness and fatigue. Higher concentrations of lead can also lead to abdominal pain, vomiting, hearing loss and seizures.
Lead poisoning can also lead to a compulsive eating disorder called Pica. This is when people, including children, eat nonfood items, such as paint chips. This can be especially dangerous if they eat chips from lead-based paint, which increases the amount of lead in their body. Pica can also lead to iron-deficiency anemia, intestinal infections, intestinal obstruction and mouth and teeth injuries.
The lead in the water in California's schools is just the latest in a long line of troubles with lead poisoning in the United States. In recent years, the city of Flint, Michigan had its own water crisis due to high amounts of lead in its drinking water, prompting the federal government to declare a state of emergency. More recently, another Michigan town, Grand Rapids, has also come into issues with lead, this time from the pervasive use of cheap, lead-based paint on windows throughout the town.