In the news

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San Jose Mercury News
By
Jason Pfeifle, CALPIRG Public Health Advocate

While school is out for summer, here’s one question San Jose parents and residents should be asking: Will the water at schools be safe to drink when kids get back in the fall?

Right now, far too many schools in California are finding lead levels that threaten children’s health and development. Just this year, tests have revealed lead-tainted drinking water at elementary and middle schools in counties throughout the state, including Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego.

And so, what about schools in San Jose? Are kids in the area also at risk of drinking lead-laced water during recess or lunch?

To start, let’s look at San Jose Unified schools. Although there are many large school districts in the South Bay, San Jose Unified is the largest, and its drinking water policy impacts tens of thousands of children.

Unlike most schools in California, the district regularly tests water from its school drinking fountains for lead. In fact, they do so twice per year.

That’s an important first step. However, testing data obtained from the district suggests that San Jose Unified still allows kids to drink water tainted with very low levels of lead.

Is that really safe for kids whose brains and bodies are still developing?

We all know that lead is highly toxic, particularly to children. But what is less widely known, perhaps, is just how harmful even low levels of lead exposure can be to kids’ overall growth and development. Recent research shows that even at blood levels below 5 micrograms per deciliter (a level once thought to be safe), lead can still cause diminished intellectual and academic abilities, higher rates of neurobehavioral disorders like ADHD, and poor growth in children.

This is why pediatricians across the country stress that there is no safe level of lead for kids. And the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends a safety standard of 1 part per billion for lead in school drinking water.

Yet, based on recent testing data, San Jose Unified appears to only take the presence of lead in drinking water seriously if there’s at least 15 times the pediatricians’ standard, and then only if the taps test high for lead at least twice.

This is a problem because a 15 parts per billion threshold for action is not a safety standard for kids. When the Environmental Protection Agency established this action level for lead in drinking water decades ago, it was designed as an administrative tool for water districts to determine when to treat their water for corrosion control. It was never intended as a health-based standard for children.

The very mission of schools is to promote the academic success of all children. They should be doing everything in their power to ensure kids are gaining IQ points, not losing them as a result of lead exposure.

To fully protect children’s health, schools should proactively replace the lead pipes and plumbing that cause water contamination in the first place. And until that can be done, they should use filters certified to remove lead and install them on all taps used for drinking or cooking.

It’s time for San Jose Unified and other local school districts to step up and be true leaders in protecting children’s health.

In the meantime, parents can get more information on their school’s drinking water by contacting the district office to ask for recent test results and what’s been done to address any lead-tainted water.

Jason Pfeifle, PhD, is a Public Health Advocate for CALPIRG (California Public Interest Research Group) and CALPIRG Education Fund. He wrote this for The Mercury News.

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