California schools can receive free lead testing for their drinking water under a new short-term initiative meant to address safety concerns.
Most schools are not required to test for lead, creating uncertainty about whether the water children consume during the school day is safe, but some schools in California have dealt with high levels of lead and in some cases shut off access to water coming through pipes and taps.
The initiative announced by the State Water Resources Control Board keeps lead testing at schools voluntary. However, if a K-12 school requests testing by its public water system, the utility is obligated to collect samples within three months and report findings to the school within two business days. The state said the program will stay in effect until Nov. 1, 2019.
“While the presence of lead in California’s water infrastructure is minimal compared to other parts of the country, additional testing can help ensure we are continuing to protect our most vulnerable populations,” Darrin Polhemus, deputy director of the State Water Board’s Division of Drinking Water, said in a news release.
The new program makes water systems responsible for the cost of collecting water samples at schools, conducting the analysis and reporting the results.
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The public health emergency stemming from lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan has put greater national focus on lead testing standards. California's newer infrastructure means lead is less of a concern here, but school districts large and small have faced problems.
Only about 10 percent of the nation’s schools and a tiny fraction of day cares are required to test for lead because they run their own systems, according to a 2016 investigation by USA Today. The EPA estimates that about 90,000 public schools and half a million child-care facilities nationwide are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act because they depend on water sources such as municipal utilities expected to test their own water. That means parents can't be certain lead isn't entering the water through a school's corroded pipes or old fixtures.
Students at the K-8 Orange Center School outside of Fresno have relied on water coolers instead of the school's built-in drinking fountains for more than two years because of high lead readings going back to 2010. The school, which has its own well and water system, is in the process of joining the city of Fresno's water service.
In 1998, lead was detected at several schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. After revelations that policies to address the problem were being ignored, the district in 2008 announced testing at all of its 735 schools and the eventual replacement of more than 2,000 drinking fountains and faucets.
Health reporter Barrett Newkirk can be reached at (760)778-4767, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @barrettnewkirk.