Get the lead out: health advocates call on Oakland school leaders to change water policies

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Health advocates petitioned the Oakland school board on Wednesday night to change district water policies after they say lead was found in water at 45 campuses and day care centers since the school year began.

Representatives from four groups delivered a petition with 1,000 signatures to the school board Wednesday evening.

They are calling on the board to adopt a policy that follows what the American Academy of Pediatrics says is an allowable amount of lead in drinking water. The district currently follows standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, which  allows for 15 times the amount of pediatric recommendations. 

"It is time to declare this a public health crisis, a public health emergency," said Ayanna Davis of Healthy Black Families, one of several advocacy groups told the board.

Added Jason Pfeifle, a public health advocate with CALPIRG and the CALPIRG Education Fund: "We have had conversations with parents, and the sentiment among many is the answer is simple: the district should follow the pediatrician guidelines."

Oakland school district spokesman John Sasaki said the district has been working closely with CALPRIG and letting them know about progress that the board of education and staff have been making in addressing their proposal.

Sasaki said nothing is more important than the health of students and staff. In cases where a school has one or more fixtures that show lead, staff members flush the fixtures at the beginning of the day to eliminate any trace amounts of lead.

At the board meeting, members seemed to be receptive to the stricter recommendations. They said starting next month, they will set new goals to make sure the lead levels are even lower than that 15 parts per billion by replacing more water fixtures across its campus. Some of those upgrades could be paid for - with money from Oakland's soda tax.

The Berkeley Unified School District recently announced it will follow the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics for their schools. The district plans to take any fixture that tests higher than what academy guidelines allow out of service until the source is identified and fixed, and then retested.

In December, the Oakland completed water testing at all district-run school sites and child development centers after lead was found in school drinking fountains and sinks. Lead was also discovered in the showers at McClymonds High School.

The district says elevated lead readings were minimal. Water sources were immediately taken out of service and have been replaced or are in the process of being replaced, according to the district.

Still, the district wanted further proof that the water is safe to drink.

Water testing by the East Bay Municipal Utility District at all 85 schools began late last year and has been completed, a utility spokeswoman said Wednesday. 

 Results posted on the district's web site show that of the 85 schools, 51 have been found to be within EPA guidelines for drinking water. Results from the remaining schools are pending.  Testing on the district's 18 charter schools is now underway, the spokeswoman said. 

While the health advocacy groups acknowledge that school leaders have addressed the worst problems, they say the district is still letting students drink from fountains that have failed to meet pediatrician guidelines for lead in drinking water.

Lead gets into drinking water when pipes that contain lead corrode, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content that corrodes pipes and fixtures, according to the EPA.

The most common problem is with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures with lead solder, from which significant amounts of lead can enter into the water, especially hot water. Older pipes are more problematic. The average age of Oakland school buildings is 57 years.

Lead can be harmful to fetuses, infants, children and adults.

In children, low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, slowed growth, hearing problems, anemia and hyperactivity, the EPA says.

Adults exposed to lead can suffer from high blood pressure, kidney problems and reproductive health problems. 

KTVU's Debora Villalon contributed to this report.