Soapbox

It takes cash to get lead out of schools

Water bottles line the entrance to Foothill Intermediate School in Loma Rica, where lead in the drinking water frequently rose to unhealthy levels in 2016.
Water bottles line the entrance to Foothill Intermediate School in Loma Rica, where lead in the drinking water frequently rose to unhealthy levels in 2016. AP

When will California make it a priority to protect our children from the toxic lead contamination in many schools’ water? From the looks of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget, this threat to students’ health and academic potential remains dangerously underfunded.

 
Opinion

I’ve spent my career working to protect low-income communities from environmental toxins, but I was still shocked to receive a notice that several schools in my children’s school district in Oakland tested positive for dangerous levels of lead, which is linked to reduced IQ and attention span, learning disabilities, impaired growth and numerous other risks. Since then, districtwide testing has revealed that 20 schools and counting have water sources that exceed federal safety limits, often due to lead pipes or faucets.

Oakland isn’t alone. In San Diego, 1 in 5 schools tested positive for lead in their water. The true scale of this issue remains unknown. Though lead testing has been free for schools since January 2017, more than 11,000 of the state’s 13,000 public schools remain untested. But we do know that this issue is especially dire in poor communities of color, where schools are often underfunded, have significant deferred maintenance, and have not replaced outdated plumbing and fixtures.

Under a new law that took effect Jan. 1, all public schools by 2019 must test for lead, shut down contaminated water sources immediately and secure clean water in a timely manner. Assembly Bill 746 could be a game changer, but only if the state adequately funds and monitors its implementation.

But not enough state money has been set aside to fully address the expensive remediation required in some schools. While there are potential funding sources – including the Drinking Water for Schools Grant Program and the California Public School Facility Bond – they are not being tapped at nearly the level required. The governor’s budget includes $640 million for school construction and modernization, but that won’t cover a quarter of the existing backlog, never mind significant lead remediation.

Financing has been a stumbling block in nearly every district with lead contamination. In Los Angeles, where it was discovered 10 years ago that some schools have lead levels as much as 400 times the federal safety standard, most schools have yet to replace contaminated fixtures and instead resort to flushing the pipes every morning. Many other schools use bottled water, putting off repairs indefinitely. School districts need to move beyond these Band-Aid solutions, but they cannot do it alone.

I’m thrilled that state officials, advocates and voters have taken important steps, such as passing AB 746, to expose and address the legacy of lead contamination. But these efforts will be wasted – and the health of the next generation of Californians jeopardized – if the governor and Legislature don’t commit enough money.

Chione Flegal is senior director of PolicyLink, a national racial and economic justice advocacy organization based in Oakland. She can be contacted at chione@policylink.org.

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