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Get the Lead Out of San Diego Schools

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Last year, a cafeteria water fountain at Alice Birney Elementary school in San Diego tested positive for dangerously high lead levels [1]. Repeat tests found levels at nearly a hundred times [2]what doctors warn should be the maximum allowable level of lead exposure.

The school district safety office immediately started providing bottled water for the children while investigating the source of contamination. Soon after, school officials discovered an old pipe was leaching lead into the drinking water. After removing the old piping and installing filters, the water tested clear and lead free.

Voice of San Diego CommentaryOn Election Day, San Diego voters will have an opportunity to prevent similar threats to our children’s health at school — by voting yes on Measure YY.

Birney Elementary is not an isolated case in San Diego County. The tragedy that unfolded in Flint, Mich., in 2015 put the threat of lead exposure from drinking water in the spotlight. The Legislature responded last year by requiring all schools to undergo lead testing [3]. Since lead was permitted in pipes and plumbing parts in California until 2010, the risk of lead contamination is widespread. San Diego Unified School district testing [4] has so far found that about 1 percent of schools with levels that exceed the federal standards of fifteen parts per billion and 13 percent of schools found lead at more than five parts per billion. Estimates from testing are that close to half the schools would detect some lead.

Lead is an incredibly potent neurotoxin that impairs how children learn, grow and behave. Even very low levels of exposure have been linked [5] to lower IQ, hyperactivity and damage to children’s central and peripheral nervous systems. Kids are especially vulnerable to absorbing this toxin. The bottom line: There is no safe level of lead, especially for our children. Exposure is cumulative in the body, so the small exposures add up over time. And damage to the brain is irreversible.

In July 2017, the San Diego Unified’s Board of Education adopted a stronger lead standard than the outdated federal and state standard of five part per billion action level. Now, the school district wants to go further and is considering a one part per billion action level. To do so requires community investment, since replacing old lead pipes is not fundable through the day-to-day school maintenance budget.

Measure YY will provide the critical investment needed to get the lead out of San Diego school drinking water. Funds will be used to replace old plumbing, install water filling stations with filters at schools, as well as addressing asbestos exposure and other health and safety needs. The school district has committed to having the cleanest drinking water in the country, and to use funds raised from the bond measure to meet the new target of one part per billion, the lowest rate in the nation. Safe, clean drinking water is something worth investing in for San Diego’s future and for our children. Vote yes on Measure YY.

Lorena Gonzalez represents the 80th Assembly District in the California Legislature, which includes parts of San Diego and the South Bay. Laura C. Deehan is a public health advocate at the Los Angeles-based consumer group CALPIRG [6].