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Unsafe levels of lead found in water at three SF public schools

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San Francisco International High School seen at 655 De Haro St. in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood June 30, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Water fixtures at three San Francisco public schools have been shut off for containing unsafe levels of lead in a round of water testing conducted by the school district.

The water samples were taken from fixtures at San Francisco International High, Malcolm X Elementary and West Portal Elementary schools. It’s unclear if the lead was found in drinking fountains or in other water fixtures.

“We are working with the SFPUC [San Francisco Public Utilities Commission] to ensure we have accurate information to share about which fixtures were tested and what the levels were,” Gentle Blythe, a spokesperson for San Francisco Unified School District, wrote in an email Thursday.

School drinking water fixtures that exceed 15 parts lead per billion “exceed the action level,” according to Environmental Protection Agency Guidelines, Blythe wrote.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even low levels of lead in blood “have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention and academic achievement.”

Exposure to high levels of lead affects “every organ of the body,” said Dr. Margaret Handley, a professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UC San Francisco. “The biggest concern is the developing brain in children. A young child exposed to lead [can have] irreversible damage to brain,” she said.

Water testing at California schools has been taking place on a voluntary basis. In January, an initiative by the State Water Resources Control Board called on all “community water systems” to test school drinking water upon request by school officials.

Earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that mandates all California public schools undergo water testing.

The SFUSD has been testing its school water sources since the 1980s, and began a new round of voluntary water testing in April in collaboration with the SFPUC, according to Blythe.

So far, 72 schools have been tested and 53 more will be subject to the water testing by the end of the 2017-18 school year.

SFPUC spokesperson Todd Elmer said the water supply that is “delivered to schools and all customers” by the SFPUC is “entirely safe.”

“Whatever is going on inside the plumbing with our customers and others, we can’t control that,” Elmer said. “We do encourage our customers to do testing and commend the school district for proactively doing it.”

While the water is “good and tested regularly by SFPUC,” a “fixture or area of piping may be problematic,” Blythe wrote.

School sites throughout the district have been undergoing upgrades to ensure seismic, fire and life safety and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance since 2003, and newly installed drinking fixtures at schools targeted for upgrades have been tested and cleared, according to Blythe.

“We are currently installing tap-water bottle filling stations in every school,” she said. A total of 82 stations have been installed across 51 school sites.

At the state and national level, efforts have been successful to identify and eliminate sources of lead contamination, Handley said.

“One of the best public health success stories is removing lead from gasoline — people who lived near highways had high lead level and exposure for children,” said Handley, who co-authored a study that analyzed the effectiveness of a 2006 state law that mandated a community lead-testing surveillance program, making testing for lead in candy more widespread.

Currently, there are local programs targeting children that test for high lead levels in blood that aim to identify and eliminate contamination sources, Handley said.

But the case-based programs can be problematic because “the damage is done,” she said, adding that investing in preemptive community and state lead monitoring programs to prevent lead exposure is key.

“We should probably be looking at statewide approaches to looking at hot spots,” she said.

The water fixtures at the three schools that have been impacted by the lead contaminations have been shut down and parents have been notified, according to Blythe.

The schools are providing bottled water to their students until the fixtures are cleared, she said.

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