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Legislature must act to protect California school kids from lead in drinking water

Sacramento State has identified 43 water fountains, bottle filling stations and sinks showing high levels of lead.
Sacramento State has identified 43 water fountains, bottle filling stations and sinks showing high levels of lead. rbyer@sacbee.com

Drinking water contaminated by toxic levels of lead has been discovered at several California schools this year. This is unacceptable.

Schools in San Ysidro, San Marcos and San Diego have found elevated lead levels in their water. Sacramento State recently shut down 43 drinking fountains, bottle filling stations and sinks because of lead-contaminated water. These cases are likely indicative of a much larger problem.

Because testing for lead is not mandatory, most schools in California do not take this step to protect our children. Here in Sacramento County, only 7 percent of public schools have signed up for free lead tests offered by the local water district this year.

What we don’t know can hurt us, and in this case, hurt our kids.

It has been long established that, at high levels, lead can cause dangerous neurologic symptoms or even death. More recently however, we have discovered that even a tiny amount of lead can be toxic. It is especially toxic in children because they absorb more lead in their bodies than adults. Even at levels less than 5 micrograms per deciliter, lead has been shown to cause diminished intellectual and academic abilities, higher rates of neurobehavioral disorders such as ADHD, and poor growth in children.

And yet, all too often, schools have lead in their pipes and plumbing that can leach into the water that kids drink during recess and lunch.

As a pediatrician, I know firsthand what kind of long-term detrimental impacts this can have on the lives of these children and our community. It’s time for California to step up and be a leader in protecting children’s health.

It is incredibly important that kids drink water at school, but this water needs to be safe. Bills currently pending in our state Legislature require schools to test their water periodically. That’s a start; testing is a necessary step toward protecting kids from this toxic threat to their health. However, these bills do not require schools to restrict access to water outlets that test positive for lead below 15 parts per billion. There is no safe level of lead for children. Our kids deserve a stronger safety standard.

We need strong public policies that require schools to regularly test their water for lead and to take corrective action any time a water outlet tests positive for lead at 1 part per billion or higher. Even something as simple as installing a certified water filter can ensure children are adequately protected from this toxic threat to their health. This is not only a common-sense public health protection for our kids, but also a long-term investment for our future.

It is estimated that 23 million IQ points are lost nationwide due to lead exposure. Preventing these toxic exposures will help save IQ points and can reduce the incidence of many other cognitive and academic consequences of lead exposure. Investing in our kids is one of the most important investments we can make.

Lead in school drinking water has been ignored for far too long. It’s time for the Legislature to pass a bill to help protect children from this serious threat to their health and development. It will benefit us all in the long run.

Dr. Lauren Gambill is a Sacramento pediatrician and a member of the State Government Affairs Committee for the American Academy of Pediatrics, California. She can be contacted at laurengambill@gmail.com or on Twitter @renkate.

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