Water at Berkeley schools tested for lead contamination

These Malcolm X Elementary water fountains could be among the many BUSD water sources being tested by EBMUD for lead. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) conducted soon-to-be mandatory tests for lead in drinking water at all Berkeley Unified campuses in early December. The school district plans to publicize the results in January.

Previous BUSD lead tests conducted at other points this year at Washington and Jefferson elementary schools and Berkeley High came back negative, according to results shared with Berkeleyside. Those tests were prompted by concerns about those sites, and did not detect lead but found trace amounts of other contaminants, none exceeding federal drinking water standard limits.

[Update: The consultant conducting these preliminary tests used a method that can only detect lead at quantities larger than the current federal limit for drinking water, which is 15 micrograms per liter. A Berkeleyside reader first pointed this out.]

The EBMUD tests conducted in December were more comprehensive. A new California law, which goes into effect in January, requires public water systems to test drinking water at all public K-12 schools with buildings constructed before 2010, by July 2018. If lead levels exceed health standards, the school district must notify parents, shut down the water source immediately and ensure that potable water is provided in its place. EBMUD completed its Berkeley tests with school maintenance staff earlier this month, according to BUSD.

EBMUD is responsible for covering the cost of the testing. Along with sources at the location, the utility is required to test a site where the public water supply connects with the school’s system, to determine whether the water entering the school is contaminated from the outset, as opposed to from infrastructure at the school.

A previous law passed in January 2017 required all public water systems to test for lead at the request of any school, whether public or private. BUSD did not take advantage of that law earlier this year. The district instead worked with a private consultant to conduct its previous tests at a few sites.

Between April and November this year, Concord-based Shoreline Environmental Resources tested one or more faucets at Jefferson and Washington elementary schools and at Berkeley High. Shoreline reports shared with Berkeleyside by BUSD show that tests of water sources at three sites in Washington’s main building and at its portable buildings detected small concentrations of chloroform, bromoform and bromodichloromethane, together referred to as trihalomethanes. Those compounds, which are carcinogenic in larger amounts, are byproducts of the chlorine disinfection process.

“These are present in the water before it reaches the school,” said David Sedlak, a water quality expert and professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley. The levels detected at the elementary school, all below the federal limit of 80 micrograms per liter, are “pretty typical” in East Bay tap water, he said. (See page 5 of EBMUD’s water quality report for health standards and local averages for various compounds.)

Over the summer, two EBMUD reservoirs were found to contain elevated levels of trihalomethanes, which had formed when the chlorine reacted with organic debris, according to the utility district.

EBMUD workers flushed water from pipes over the summer of 2017 after high levels of trihalomethanes were detected. Photo: EBMUD

The Washington Elementary tests also detected hydrocarbons, which “are a common ingredient found in plumbing supplies such as PVC glue and pipe sealant. They can in very small concentrations, occasionally leach from point joints,” the Shoreline reports said.

Water at the Berkeley High D-Building similarly contained levels of chloroform and hydrocarbons deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Two drinking fountains at Jefferson were tested, and found to contain detectable, but not excessive, amounts of barium and copper. According to the district, tests of BUSD’s facilities building in the 1700 block of Russell Street also came back negative for excessive contamination.

Many states, cities and school districts have been more diligent about lead testing in the wake of the 2015 crisis in Flint, Michigan. After that city switched its water source and supplier, and neglected to properly treat the water with anti-corrosion agents — and then later over-treated it — residents began complaining that their children were getting sick and having trouble in school. Tests eventually found that almost half the homes in Flint had contaminated water, some with lead levels exceeding what the EPA deems hazardous waste, and many children had heightened levels of lead in their blood.

Lead consumption is unsafe for all ages, but especially for children, for whom it can cause permanent brain damage and a range of behavioral and cognitive issues, as well as headaches and stomach illnesses.

A thorough investigation by Reuters identified almost 3,000 neighborhoods across the country where lead poisoning rates were even higher than Flint’s.

Widespread lead contamination is much more common in the East Coast and upper Midwest, where infrastructure is older, said Sedlak.

“Here it tends to be the fixtures within the building,” such as a water fountain, that contain lead, he said. “In the East Coast, you often have entire pipe networks that have lead.”

But Bay Area school districts are not immune. Tests in Oakland have so far found 14 schools with at least one water source with elevated lead levels. In San Francisco, one of multiple school water samples recently found to contain lead had six times the federal limit. Some of the schools are thought to have neglected their policies of flushing fountains and taps each morning to clear out any toxins that have collected overnight, a practice used on certain types of fixtures.

The Oakland reports are what prompted parents to request the tests at both Washington and Jefferson, said BUSD spokesman Charles Burress. Berkeley High’s D-Building was tested after students reported cloudy water there. Staff also decided to test the facilities building because it might be the oldest in the district, Burress said.

The new California law was written by San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher following the detection of lead and other contaminants in school drinking water there.

Berkeleyside will cover the results of the BUSD tests when they are released.

The city of Berkeley offers free workshops and case management to families through its Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.