Extreme lead level found in Berkeley High drinking water, but district says false alarm

Tests that found water from a fountain inside the Berkeley High Community Theater contaminated with an extraordinary level of lead were “faulty,” according to BUSD. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Newly released state data reveal that water from a Berkeley High School fountain was found to contain more than 40 times the amount of lead permitted under California health guidelines.

The revelation caused some alarm among people who saw the data, but Berkeley Unified says no students were exposed to the contaminated water. The fountain had actually been taken out of service weeks earlier and wasn’t meant to be tested, according to the district. The longer a water fixture is not used, the more lead levels can rise.

The new data, published in an interactive map by the State Water Resources Control Board in late June, show the BHS fountain contained 640 parts per billion (ppb) of lead. The state tells schools to remove any water fixture in excess of 15 ppb, and to inform the school community about the findings.

Berkeley Unified has adopted a more stringent policy than that, following recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics to take any fixture with even 1 ppb of lead out of service until the problem is fixed.


A recent California law requires public water systems to test drinking water at all public K-12 schools. BUSD had the East Bay Municipal Utility District conduct the mandated tests at each of its 20 schools in December 2017, and released the results in January.

Those tests found just one fixture slightly exceeding the state maximum — a Willard Middle School water fountain, testing at 17 ppb.

Five other schools had lead levels in violation of Berkeley Unified’s policy, but within state standards, and all other sources tested were deemed safe. The district took the six contaminated fixtures out of service immediately and notified families. Administrators said they would spend the next 10 months doing further tests and remediating the dangerous fountains.

One of those fixtures removed after the December tests was an “old 1950s pink, porcelain fountain,” in Berkeley High’s Community Theater lobby, which tested at 6.2 ppb, said Charles Burress, BUSD spokesman. The district went ahead and not only took that fountain out of service, but turned off three other identical vintage fountains in the same lobby too, in case they had similar problems, he said. (The entire Community Theater is slated for a major redevelopment, but the timeline and funding are up in the air.)

Water fountains at Malcolm X Elementary. The district tested fountains at all 20 Berkeley schools. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The district put plastic bags over those four fountains and turned off the valves, Burress said.

When EBMUD came back to conduct additional tests at Berkeley High in February, at the request of the district, testers with contractor Terraphase sampled water from one of those out-of-service fountains, producing the ultra-high 640 ppb figure, Burress said.

“We had taken it off the list,” Burress said. “But Terraphase still had one [of those fountains] on their list. Our employee who was escorting them did not understand, and allowed them to retest the fixture. They took the plastic bag off and turned back on the valve.”


That action was “a total violation of testing protocol. A test is based on the assumption that a fountain is in regular use,” Burress said.

Chris Vulpe, a UC Berkeley toxicologist, said lead levels can spike dramatically when a fountain is unused for some time.

Even when in use, “many water fountains or fixtures will give a high level initially, then once you flush it the levels go down,” Vulpe said.

BUSD never notified families about the 640 ppb finding, because it was a product of “faulty” testing and nobody had drunk from the contaminated fountain.

Berkeleyside asked BUSD for documentation showing the fountain was indeed taken out of service weeks before the test, and that it was removed from any list given to the testers.

The district sent a typed list of fixtures Burress said was used for the February testing. The list that was shared did not include any theater fountains. Burress said staff involved in the testing said “the instructions to take all four of the Community Theater lobby fountains out of service were given orally during a meeting and were not written down.”

EBMUD spokeswoman Tracie Morales confirmed that, as far as the utility is aware, the four fountains were taken out of service and one was later tested.


“It’s our understanding that this faucet and three others were removed from service,” she said. “It was our understanding that the district had bagged it and shut it off” after the December tests.

The utility defers to the district when it comes to identifying fixtures to be tested, Morales said.

“This can be a logistically complicated effort, especially since this is one that’s been newly implemented,” she said. “It’s something that takes a lot of coordination between East Bay MUD, the school and the contractor.”

Despite what the district describes as unsound testing and misrepresentative findings, the 640 ppb result remains visible in the state Water Board database. That figure makes the Berkeley High fountain the third most dangerous of all school fixtures tested in the state.

Beti Girma, an engineer with the Water Board, said water systems must report their findings to schools within two days of receiving results. Schools must then notify parents and guardians.

The Water Board waited 60 days to publicize any of the data included on the map, to allow that communication to occur. (Individual findings no longer appear to be visible on the map, or the feature might not be currently functioning, but the database can still be downloaded.)

“By the time something’s on the map, it shouldn’t be a surprise to the school and its community,” Girma said.

BUSD never notified families about the 640 ppb finding, because it was a product of “faulty” testing and nobody had drunk from the contaminated fountain, Burress said.

When contamination is detected in a single fixture, the district must then test the original water source as well, to determine whether the water coming into the school is contaminated from the outset, or whether the individual fountain or plumbing is problematic.

The water source leading to the Community Theater fountains was tested and found to be well within state standards, Girma said.

During the follow-up tests in February, lead-contaminated water — 16 ppb, or just higher than the legal maximum — was also detected in a sink at Hopkins Preschool, according to the state data. It was taken out of service.

Recent public health crises in Flint, Michigan and elsewhere have directed attention to the dangers of drinking lead-contaminated water. Lead consumption can lead to serious behavioral and cognitive issues, and the risks are greater for children, who can experience permanent brain damage.

It is impossible to determine exactly how children or adults would react if they were exposed to any given amount of lead, Vulpe said. The reaction would depend on the individual’s age, health and other circumstances.

“The only way to tell [how someone is affected] is to measure their lead levels,” Vulpe said. “There’s no safe level of lead. In a simplistic way, no lead is best.”

In Flint, kids began getting sick and struggling in class after the city switched its water source and supplier, introducing lead pipes that had not been properly treated to prevent corrosion.

Lead contamination is more common in the Midwest and East Coast, where there’s older infrastructure, but issues can occur anywhere.

In California, according to the new state data, the water fixtures with the highest lead levels were all in Bay Area schools.

EBMUD’s school testing practices are described in a factsheet from the utility. BUSD has a webpage describing the district’s protocols.