Despite evidence pointing to the dangers of lead poisoning that dates to ancient times, the toxic metal continued to be used as a building and manufacturing material through the 20th century. The substance still threatens human health today, including the well-being of San Francisco’s children.
Lead tests have periodically been conducted by the San Francisco Unified School District at public schools since the 1980s, triggering installation of new plumbing and water fixtures. Assessments done last fall revealed highly elevated lead levels in drinking water from taps at the Enola Maxwell campus on De Haro Street, home to San Francisco International High School and New School of San Francisco. Additionally, water fixtures at Downtown High School, as well as Malcolm X in Bayview and West Portal elementary schools, showed lead levels above regulatory limits during recent testing. The District is investigating the cause of the contamination.
“Fixtures that test high for lead in the school testing program are immediately taken out of service. No health impacts have been reported to us,” stated June Weintraub, manager of water programs at the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
According to the Mayo Clinic, no amount of lead exposure is safe. Even small amounts can buildup in the body over the course of years and harm development. Large doses can fatally damage kidneys and the nervous system. Symptoms of poisoning in children include learning difficulties, irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, sluggishness and fatigue, abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation, hearing loss and seizures. The medical research clinic indicates that a level of five micrograms per deciliter of blood is considered elevated; a level of 45 or higher calls for treatment.
Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes lead poses a serious threat to children’s health; millions of youth are exposed annually. Nationally, about half a million children aged one to five years old have lead levels of about five micrograms per deciliter of blood. In addition to exposure through drinking water, poisonings occur from lead-based paints found in older homes and other contaminated sources, such as soil, toys and building materials.
Last April, SFUSD partnered with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to embark on a lead testing program in compliance with a new state law, Assembly Bill 746. The legislation requires that schools located in buildings constructed before 2010 be tested for lead by January 2019. If lead levels exceed 15 parts per billion (ppb), students’ parents must be notified, non-compliant taps shutdown and alternative potable water sources provided. Numerous samples taken during recent testing at the Enola Maxwell campus came back above 15 ppb. One was 860 ppb; another 52.6 ppb. According to SFGate, students from both schools shared the same non-compliant fixtures.
“The extent to which fixtures were replaced during past bond modernizations and the extent to which they are regularly in use is likely the main contributor to high readings,” explained Gentle Blythe, chief communications officer, SFUSD. “Fixtures that are used infrequently are more likely to test higher for lead.”
SFUSD literature regularly tests the City’s water supplies to determine that it’s safe. However, aging facilities often contain outdated plumbing and fixtures that leach lead into the water, especially if not used and/or flushed regularly. As part of a remediation program at schools with high lead levels, steps are being taken to identify, and eliminate, the source of the contamination. This involves flushing plumbing systems, cleaning faucet components, testing incoming and back-flow lead levels and modernizing fixtures. In the interim, students aren’t able to access the contaminated fixtures and are provided with alternate potable drinking water sources, such as bottled water and portable water dispensers.
“Any fixtures that have tested above action level in previous tests have been addressed on the spot,” added Blythe. “Upon installation of new fixtures during modernization work, any new fixtures are tested. If high readings are found, the lines are flushed and fixtures are tested again. If that doesn’t solve the issue, the fixtures and/or adjacent pipes are replaced until testing confirms appropriate readings.”
As will be state-mandated beginning next year, SFUSD notified parents of students who attend the schools with elevated lead levels. According to Blythe, no health impacts have been reported to the District; families are encouraged to consult their child’s healthcare provider about blood testing if there are any concerns. Exposure to low lead levels can result in no obvious or immediate symptoms, or produce indications such as irritability that can be overlooked as a possible health concern.
KTVU Fox 2 reported that the San Francisco Department of Public Health had found at least five schools with elevated lead levels in 1997. DPH also identified Potrero Hill and Hunters Point as having the most homes with lead contamination in the City.
“Our Children’s Environmental Health Promotion investigates lead hazards in homes where a child under six years of age resides, and lead in water has never been a significant source in homes investigated,” Weintraub offered.
The lead inspection conducted through the program, which began in 1993, is free for residents provided that they live with a child under six. Additionally, SFPUC offers lead testing kits for $25. Vouchers for free kits are available to families that’re eligible for the Women, Infants and Children program.
In the 1980s SFPUC removed all known lead water service lines in the City, though the upgrade didn’t apply to plumbing within homes and businesses. SFPUC literature states that faucets purchased before 1997 may have lead in quantities that exceed current regulations. According to the Commission, lead exposure from outdated fixtures can be reduced by flushing faucets for one minute in the morning, and only using cold water for internal consumption. A similar protocol exists at SFUSD schools, in which janitors are expected to flush all drinking fountains before each school day begins.