A young girl getting water at a filtered water bottle filling station. (Photo Courtesy of Jenn Engstrom)

In a nationwide study to test for lead in drinking water in schools, more than 2,100 drinking fountains in California tested positive across 1,300 schools, including the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

Hundreds of drinking fountains were tested across the district. But under current state law, the true extent of the problem in those fountains and others remains unknown.

The Get the Lead Out study by the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) Education Fund, released Feb. 23, gave the state an overall “C” grade for the amount of lead found in its schools drinking fountains. It was a downgrade from the “C+” rating given in the previous edition of the study in 2019.

California is only required to share information about lead levels above 5 parts per billion (ppb).

More than 700 LAUSD drinking fountains were tested between 2018 to 2020. However, only 26 of them — across 19 schools — were found to be above that threshold. One of those schools was the Mission Continuation High School in the City of San Fernando. A fountain there tested at 6.4 ppb.

What the lead levels are in the rest of the LAUSD fountains that were tested is unknown. California schools are only required to test their fountains once under current state law.

 “We aren’t doing enough in California,” CALPIRG State Director Jenn Engstrom said. “The state law that passed in 2017 requires testing and remediation at schools,  …but [results have to show a level of at least] 15 ppb of lead. That is nowhere near what doctors actually recommend for lead exposure for children, which is actually 1 ppb. That’s where California falls short.”

In the study, only two LAUSD fountains tested were above 15 ppb. The other 24 fountains with lead levels below 15 ppb did not require remediation.

The Environmental Protection Agency has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at zero because it states even low exposure levels can be harmful to a person’s health.

“In addition to the faucets themselves and the drinking fountains, there’s still quite a bit of lead in pipes, too,” Engstrom said. “So what we’re really calling on is not only for schools to act, but for the State Water [Resources Control] Board to work with the water utilities to get all the [lead] pipes out, to which there definitely are some.”

The problem, Engstrom said, is that even though some lead pipes have been removed, the connecting pieces that remain still have lead in them.

Engstrom said some school districts have already taken steps to remedy the problem. The San Diego Unified, Oakland Unified and Berkeley Unified school districts have removed all of their lead contaminated drinking fountains and replaced them with filtered water bottle filling stations. She has not heard if LAUSD is doing the same.

LAUSD said in a statement that it has conducted comprehensive water sampling at all school sites since 2008. They have spent $47.3 million to date on testing, assessing and reducing lead in school drinking fountains.

Although current state laws allow some fluidity when it comes to testing and remediating school drinking fountains, potential new legislation could change that.

“There is a law [Assembly Bill 249] that has been introduced by Assemblymember [Chris] Holden that would require additional testing,” Engstrom said. “It would require [schools] to actually do it every few years because the testing of lead is pretty variable.”

AB 249 would also lower the level of required remediation from 15 ppb to 5 ppb.

Removing lead piping is a partial solution. Engstrom and CALPIRG suggest also installing water filters. If removing lead pipes is not feasible now, installing filters is cheaper and would necessitate less construction.

“What we really want to see,  basically, is a state requirement that all schools need to replace all of their old drinking fountains with filtered hydration stations,” Engstrom said. “But in the meantime, schools can take their own action and do that at the local level. We’d really like to see more schools follow the lead of San Diego [Unified].”

Studies have shown that children are more likely to drink water if it’s from a water bottle filling station because it looks more sanitary than a drinking fountain, Engstrom said. Other studies have shown that drinking water can improve a child’s mood, memory and attention, keeps bones and teeth healthy, helps the blood circulate and helps maintain a healthy weight into adulthood.

Engstrom noted that it’s hard to know how bad the current lead situation is since schools could’ve fixed their fountains by the time the study was released. However, she said, this isn’t the time to wait for more testing — especially knowing how bad the situation already is.

“That’s why we’re really pushing for prevention more so than just testing and remediation,” she said. “We should be doing everything we can to make sure that our kids are protected. [It’s] kind of ridiculous that we’re still at this point.”