Lead testing at all Berkeley public schools detected unsafe levels in one Willard Middle School fountain (not shown). Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Testing throughout Berkeley Unified School District detected elevated lead levels in one water fountain at Willard Middle School. No other school water sources were found to contain quantities of lead in violation of state safety standards.

BUSD released the results of the tests, conducted by the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) at all 20 schools in December, on Tuesday. The tests also found lead levels in violation of the district’s policy, but within state standards, at five other schools.

The Willard water fountain was found to contain 17 parts per billion (ppb) of lead and “was immediately taken out of service,” according to BUSD. The state requires districts to take any water sources testing above 15 ppb out of service. Districts must also notify families about the high lead levels and further investigate the water fixture in question as well as the water entry point at the school.

A new BUSD webpage on water quality says the district plans to spend the next 10 months determining the source of contamination at all schools where the lead was detected, testing similar water sources at the schools and remediating the contaminated fixtures.

A new California law, which went into effect this month, requires public water systems to test drinking water at all public K-12 schools that have buildings constructed before 2010, by July 2018. These tests are conducted free of charge to districts. BUSD had EBMUD conduct these mandated tests early on, in December 2017, but did not take advantage of a previous, January 2017 law that would have required the utility to test schools at the request of the district.

“We are fortunate to have local bond funding that has kept our facilities renovated and modernized and a maintenance parcel tax to ensure that our campuses are well maintained and updated,” says the BUSD webpage containing the lead testing results. “As a result, we have been pleased to find that preliminary results are quite encouraging.”

Willard Principal Debbie Dean declined to comment to Berkeleyside on the results at her school.

Although the state safety standard is 15 ppb, BUSD has a policy of addressing any water sources found to contain 1 ppb of lead or higher, as recommended by pediatric health professionals. At each school, EBMUD tested five high-use water fixtures and found that at least one fixture at Berkeley High School, Jefferson, John Muir and LeConte elementary schools and Hopkins Preschool each contained lead levels higher than 1 ppb. Those water sources were also taken out of service, and further investigation and remediation will happen at each site, according to the district.

“The safety of our students is our top priority, and our response has been to adopt a standard of removing any fixture that tests at 1 ppb or above, which is based on the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics and is far stricter than what is required by the state regulations,” BUSD spokesman Charles Burress wrote to Berkeleyside. “While the lead amounts found in our water is relatively low, we naturally want to eliminate lead exposure as much as is feasible.”

The danger of lead consumption, especially among children, has gained attention in recent years, after kids in Flint, Michigan began getting sick and struggling at school when the city switched its water source and supplier. Lead in pipes there was leaching into the water, which had not been properly treated with anti-corrosion agents.

Consumption of contaminated water can cause behavioral and cognitive issues, as well as headaches and stomach issues. For kids, lead consumption can lead to permanent brain damage.

Following the Flint crisis, more cities and schools began testing for, and finding, lead in water sources. Contamination is more prevalent in the Midwest and East Coast, where the infrastructure is older, but it is not uncommon for water fixtures in California to contain lead. Several Oakland and San Francisco schools have recently detected toxic levels of lead in their water, in one case finding a fixture contaminated with 860 ppb of lead.

BUSD also previously conducted preliminary tests with a private consultant at some of its schools, when concerns about water quality were raised at those sites. Those tests did not detect any lead, though Berkeleyside readers pointed out that the consultant used an outdated method that does not detect lead quantities below 50 ppb. The report from the Willard test shows that the lab used the Environmental Protection Agency method 200.8, which detects smaller quantities and is considered appropriate for school testing.

BUSD sent out emails to families at each school Tuesday, notifying them of the lead levels detected at their site. Results from all schools, and the Willard lab report are available online.

EBMUD’s school testing practices are described in a factsheet from the utility.

This story was updated with a response from BUSD. 

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...