A water fountain at Theuerkauf Elementary is blocked off after tests by the city of Mountain View revealed lead concentrations in the water far exceeding levels known to be harmful to children, according to district officials.
The results of the tests, which the city conducted at nearly all of the Mountain View Whisman School District campuses last fall last, shows that one of the drinking fountains at Theuerkauf had lead levels at 17 parts per billion. The results exceed the so-called "action" limit of 15 parts per billion established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that requires the school district to control pipe corrosion and inform the public of how to avoid lead exposure.
The EPA's limit does not, however, reflect what is considered a safe level of lead exposure for children, who are far more vulnerable to its harmful effects than adults.
The fountain was immediately cordoned off with caution tape, district officials said, pending additional water tests. A subsequent test came back "negative" last month -- with results showing 9.9 parts per billion -- and the district expects results from a third water test later this week, according to district spokeswoman Shelly Hausman.
"These results will help the district determine what the remediation steps are, possibly new pipes or fixtures," she said.
Water samples taken on Nov. 21 and tested by the firm Alpha Analytical Laboratories found that among 36 drinking water systems in the school district, 34 came back with results showing lead concentrations lower than 5 parts per billion, which is the threshold for reporting. In addition to the Theuerkauf fountain, Castro Elementary School's cafeteria fountain had lead levels of 5.1 parts per billion, according to the reports.
Huff Elementary School's water samples were tested by school's water supplier, California Water Service, which found similar results among the five drinkable water sites on the campus -- none of the samples contained lead above 5 parts per billion.
The results came shortly after Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law, AB 746, requiring testing of all drinkable water systems on school sites built before 2010. The law took effect at the beginning of the year, and gives school districts until July 1, 2019 to complete lead testing. The new law passed through the California State Legislature on the heels of reports that several San Diego schools had high levels of lead, copper and bacteria in the water supply.
Despite the timing, a statement released by the district on Jan. 5 stated that the testing was a "proactive" measure to test water fountains for lead, and not triggered by the requirement to comply with the new state law. Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph told the Voice that major ongoing construction and modernization at several school sites made it the perfect time to check the water quality at the schools.
"If we find an issue, this is one opportunity where we can really fix it," Rudolph said. "Everybody agreed that this is really the right thing to do."
Although the Theuerkauf fountain with high levels of lead reportedly had been covered and water access shut off, the Voice found the fountain was completely uncovered Tuesday morning, and one of the two spigots had running water. Hausman said the caution tape was removed "due to staff error" and was covered up and is now fully inoperable.
Lead exposure dangers
The Jan. 5 statement describes the elevated lead levels in the Theuerkauf fountain as being "like a drop of water in a swimming pool; very low risk," and that the fountain was closed during the winter break out of an abundance of caution. Rudolph said the district is doing a third test of the Theuerkauf fountain in order to make sure kids aren't exposed to unsafe levels of lead.
"We have one test that came back positive and one test that came back negative for unsafe levels, so we want to check it one more time," he said. "We want to err on the side of caution and keep all of our kids safe."
But the 15 parts per billion limit set by the EPA is not established as a safe threshold for drinking water, particularly for children. The consensus by the EPA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that there are no known safe levels of lead in water, in part because of the harmful effects of lead, even in low concentrations, and its ability to stay in the body for prolonged periods of time.
Children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of lead exposure, and low levels of lead in the blood can to lead to longterm impacts, including behavioral and learning problems, growth disorders, lower IQ and anemia.
"A dose of lead that would have little effect on an adult can have a significant effect on a child," according to the EPA website. "Low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells."
Because lead can cause serious neurological problems even in lower concentrations in the blood, California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment revised the state's public health goal for drinking water to 0.2 parts per billion, a fraction of the threshold established by the EPA.
A statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics last year expressed frustration that the 15 parts per billion metric was being used as a measuring stick for health, providing only an "illusion of safety" when being used to gauge how dangerous drinking water is for children.
"The EPA's action level of 15 parts per billion of lead in water, which is used to regulate water systems in the United States, is routinely (but erroneously) used as a health-based standard," according to the statement. "It was not intended as a health-based standard, nor does it adequately protect children or pregnant women from adverse effects of lead exposure."
The Environmental Working Group, a national advocacy and research organization, has taken a similar stance, urging the federal government to enact a protective legal limit for lead in drinking water similar to limits on other contaminants, according to Olga Naidenko, a senior science advisor with the group. The EPA can also take a more aggressive stance in compelling water companies to replace aging pipes, which are largely to blame for lead contamination in water systems.
EPA's top administrator, Scott Pruitt, said in a statement Monday that he wants to kick off a campaign against lead contamination in drinking water supplies throughout the country, particularly childhood lead exposure. Though the announcement offered no specific plans, the statement called for updates to the nation's water infrastructure. The announcement comes just months after Pruitt sought to delay new rules regulating lead levels in paint and dust.
District officials are reviewing the requirements under AB 746 to see if the recent water tests conducted on behalf of the school district satisfy the requirements of the bill, Hausman said.