San Francisco school officials this week are awaiting test results that will show if work completed over the summer successfully eliminated lead contamination from drinking water at four schools where high levels were detected last school year.
“We expect the results any day,” said Laura Dudnick, a San Francisco Unified School District spokesperson.
The followup testing was conducted in September, nearly a year after the S.F. Examiner reported in October 2017 that three public school were found to have levels of lead contamination higher than 15 parts per billion, the level set by the Environmental Protection Agency for when action must be taken.
High levels of lead were also found at Downtown Continuation High School in samples taken in December, as well as at Life Learning Academy Charter High School on Treasure Island in March.
The results came after SFUSD partnered with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in April 2017 to begin a voluntary round of testing of all San Francisco schools.
“It basically took a full 12 months to get all of the results back. We finished in spring of this year,” said Nik Kaestner, directory of sustainability at SFUSD.
SFUSD began testing before the October 2017 passage of State Assembly Bill 746, which requires all schools built before 2010 to test for lead. The bill requires those tests to be completed by July.
The testing involved taking samples from five drinking water fixtures at each school. If any of those five tests detected high levels of lead, a second test was conducted to confirm the result. If it was still high, then all of the fixtures in the school were tested, even if they were not drinking water fixtures.
However, only drinking water fixtures underwent remediation. “A lot of times the results are terrible, but we’re talking about science laboratories” or maintenance sinks, Kaestner said. Students and staff are instructed not to drink from those locations.
Remediation work included flushing pipes to get rid of stagnant water, replacing fixtures, cleaning out faucet screens and installing lead filters, Kaestner said.
Lead contamination in San Francisco schools was highlighted Wednesday in a report released by CALPIRG, a consumer watchdog group, which compiled all of the district’s lead testing data into a single interactive map.
“(The data) was on their website, but in a difficult, awkward format for people to read,” said Laura Deehan, a public health advocate at CALPIRG. “Once we got the data we were able to do a proper analysis. It made it easier to see the problem and how widespread it is.”
The CALPIRG map shows not only locations where lead contamination above the EPA action level was found, but all schools that had any amount of detectable lead. Sixty-six schools had some amount of lead in their drinking water, Deehan said.
“They take actions to remove lead whenever it exceeds the federal EPA standards for lead, 15 parts per billion, but that was never intended to be a health standard,” Deehan said. “What we know is there are no safe levels of lead. That standard should not be used as a health standard for students in schools.”
Deehan also questioned the testing methodology of initially only testing five drinking faucets in a school. Additionally, lead leaching can be inconsistent, she said. A faucet could test clear one day but leach lead another day.
“We’re urging San Francisco to do more to protect itself,” she said. “When you find any amount of lead it’s a red flag.”