A child’s early years are a critical period of development. Children’s bodies are growing during this stage, and their brains are developing rapidly. Unfortunately, lead exposure can negatively affect young children’s body and brain development, which is why it’s important to prevent it. In California, children attending older schools have a higher chance of exposure to lead-tainted water since the drinking fountains have not been tested for toxic metals.
According to health experts, there are no safe amounts of lead in drinking water. Lead exposure leads to learning difficulties such as hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder and other health conditions such as organ damage, reproductive problems, and high blood pressure. Tragically, the damage caused by lead poisoning is irreversible. This is why environmental health advocates have been pushing for solutions to this problem for years.
Assembly member Chris Holden is taking action by introducing legislation that would require the water faucets and drinking fountains in public and private schools that were built before 2010 to be tested every five years and lead removed if detected. AB 249, School-site Lead Testing is sponsored by the nonprofit groups Environmental Working Group and Children Now. The bill is a logical solution to a dangerous problem that has been bothering environmental health advocates for decades.
California has passed numerous laws that limit lead exposure from products such as paint and plumbing materials. In 2017, a law was passed that required schools built prior to 2010 to test their water for lead. However, the law failed to require schools to test all faucets. However, the law only mandates remediation when the water exceeds the federal standard of 15 parts per billion, which is considered unsafe by health experts. Commercially bottled water regulations require bottled water to contain less than five ppb of lead. Test results indicate that about 1 in 5 schools have at least one drinking fountain with water containing more than five ppb of lead.
Holden’s bill would close the gaps in the 2017 law by requiring the schools to test all drinking and cooking faucets and remediate those with levels above five ppb. Under the bill, the testing has to be conducted by local water utility companies because they have the equipment and expertise to detect pollutants. If lead is found, the school districts would have to shut off any faucets dispensing tainted water and fix the problem. California law requires that students have access to safe drinking water at school. The state will help pay for the first round of testing and repairs with $15 million in grants.
In addition to being a public health issue, this is also an environmental justice issue. Communities of color and people with low income are most likely to be exposed to unsafe levels of lead because they tend to live in older homes, which may still contain lead paint or have lead pipes.
The new bill would also require that parents be notified if lead levels are unsafe. Legislators should add language to ensure adequate notification. At the moment, the bill leaves it to school districts to define. Posting a note on a school’s website, for example, would not be sufficient to get the message to communities that lack digital access.
School districts in San Diego, Oakland, and Berkeley have taken an aggressive approach to protect children from lead exposure through regular testing and installing permanent water filters at drinking fountains and sinks. But providing safe water for kids to drink during the school day shouldn’t be optional.
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