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SF State students test for traces of lead in Oakland water supply

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SFSU graduate student Chase Benson shows Life Academy students how to use equipment that measures lead in water and soil samples on Tuesday. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco State University students and high school students in East Oakland who partnered up to test for lead in the community have discovered levels surpassing federal regulatory limits at playgrounds and inside their own homes.

Some two dozen high school students from a science class at Life Academy near Oakland’s Fruitvale District gathered at SFSU’s Thornton Hall on Tuesday to renew a collaboration that began between the two institutions last school year.

In a field study that concluded in June 2017, the students were tasked with collecting water, paint, soil, dust and hair samples from their homes and other locations in their Oakland neighborhoods. This school year, the students will conduct additional testing for a study that has not yet been published.

Lead was found in 72 percent of the water samples previously collected by the students, according to Chase Benson, a graduate student at SFSU specializing in analytical chemistry.

“They provided us with 25 water samples [and] we found that there were higher levels correlated with the first draw, which leads us to believe that its possibly leaching from the pipes, similar as to it was in Flint, Michigan,” said Benson, referring to samples taken immediately after the tap was turned on.

Dust from vacuums in the students’ homes and soil samples from playgrounds in the area also significantly exceeded relevant regulatory limits, according to the study.

This spring, a new class of students will retest samples and collect new ones with the hope their findings will prompt local regulatory agencies to take a closer look. The students and their instructors are calling for remediation efforts to minimize lead exposure for Oakland’s residents. 

“We are repeating  the study again this year to build a case — to prove that there are high levels [of lead] here,” said 17-year-old Yaquelin Zaragoza, who collected paint samples from locations in East Oakland last year.

The students are expected to produce more than 100 samples for testing in March, according to Pete Palmer, a professor of analytical chemistry at SFSU who helped manage the project.

The samples were analyzed by SFSU graduate and undergraduate students enrolled in an environmental analysis course using technology and methods similar to those used by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We’ve got students at both high school and university levels doing things that, frankly, regulatory agencies should be doing,” Palmer said.

For many of the students, the study’s results were alarming.

“When the results came back I was shocked,” said high school senior Rosario Diaz, who participated in last year’s study. “I had dust samples that were very high [risk] in my house.”

Reports published in recent years have found lead pollution in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood surpassing levels found in Flint, Mich. As recently as January, health advocates petitioned Oakland School officials to change the district’s policies after lead was found in water at more than 45 campuses.

In San Francisco, unsafe levels of lead in water have been found at three public schools, and voluntary water testing at dozens of San Francisco Unified schools is currently underway.

Even if elevated levels of lead are found in tap water, “a certain percentage of homes in a neighborhood” must test above the regulated limit before regulatory agencies step in, according to Palmer.

“The legal maze and loopholes are amazing,” he said.

Generally, government intervention is triggered by elevated blood-lead levels tested in children, according to Benson.

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