Persistent lead-exposure health risks in the Bay Area differ greatly from the water system failure in Flint, Mich.
Local water systems routinely test water all the way from its source to the kitchen tap, and new water rules reflect a local response to Flint’s lead crisis. Substantial lead exposure from other sources has been identified in parts of Oakland and San Jose, but blood lead testing – the measure of whether lead from a multitude of sources is entering children’s bodies – occurs in only some children locally, and is reported unevenly across the region.
Monitoring and reporting child blood levels is not practiced uniformly in the Los Altos and Mountain View areas due both to comparatively laissez-faire state policy and perceived low local risk.
Testing in Los Altos
Childhood blood lead levels have fallen dramatically since the 1970s, but the scientific community’s understanding of how dangerous lead exposure is also has grown. In states like New York, where the health department estimates that most children have some contact with lead in old paint, soil, plumbing or other sources, doctors must test all children at age 1 and again at age 2. In California, where exposure is commonly assumed to be lower because of the belief that fewer homes have aging lead-based paint, that testing is not routine.
MediCal requires that enrolled children be tested for lead poisoning at ages 1 and 2, but that requirement covers only toddlers enrolled in the state-funded low-income health service. In Santa Clara County’s most recently reported data, from 2012, 1.36 percent of the 23,000 children screened showed blood levels above 4.5 micrograms per deciliter. No level of lead is considered safe, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently consider any amount over 5 mcg/dL as rating a “level of concern.” Lead exposure is particularly harmful to young children, in whom high blood levels of lead damage nearly every developing system in the body.
A recent Reuters investigation into lead monitoring nationwide revealed that the CDC gathered data unevenly, and the California Department of Health couldn’t provide blood testing results across many zip codes in the Bay Area, including the Mountain View and Los Altos areas. In Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, one of the areas with reported testing results, Reuters’ analysis found that more than 7 percent of children had unhealthy blood lead levels attributed to contaminated paint and soil exposure, not aging water pipes.
Bay Area children with high blood levels may have ingested chips of cracked and peeling paint, or touched contaminated soil or dust. Some imported toys, spices and pigments also show lead contamination. But because of the lead-contaminated water sickening families in Flint, local water systems have received a flurry of increased attention regarding their own testing and treatment process.
Assuring clean water
California State Superintendent Tom Torlakson unveiled a new program this winter to fund water testing in all state public schools. Water systems are required to test public school drinking water upon request in addition to routine residential water testing.
Randy Kenyon, Los Altos School District assistant superintendent of business services, said the district periodically tests water at its schools – “we want to be proactive where we need to be” – and that the new program would just facilitate an existing practice.
School systems around the country have been writing similar requirements into effect since the 2014 discovery of excessive lead levels in residential and school drinking water in Flint.
California has infrequently identified lead problems in its water infrastructure, thanks in part to having less corrosive water chemistry than other regions, according to state Department of Education officials. Routine testing already monitors residential water systems in California by sampling the water coming from household taps in homes of different ages.
That testing, carried out every three years, has not detected excessive – or really any – lead in local water in recent years.
Lead contamination often enters drinking water at nearly the final step, leaching from service lines or hardware in the home rather than originating in water sources or mains. Older pipes and components still contain higher lead levels, and water agencies use anti-corrosion chemicals to inhibit the transfer of lead from household pipes and fixtures into water.
In Flint, that anti-corrosion system fell apart. Flint had lead service lines in its water system, and when the city changed water sources, the chemistry of its new supply began to leach lead in greatly increased amounts. The city didn’t adjust chemicals to prevent the increased corrosion and was not fully complying with federal testing requirements. Early warnings from concerned residents and visiting researchers were dismissed.
Local water-quality data
Robert Thompson, California Water Service Co.’s water quality project manager, said the Los Altos-area water provider follows testing requirements “to the letter” and provides historical and current water-quality data in an annual report as well as on demand.
“We rigorously monitor water quality, maintain and upgrade our systems to ensure that water circulates properly, test the corrosiveness of the water and add corrective measures when needed to prevent lead from plumbing fixtures from affecting water quality, and carefully plan for and test any potential new sources of water,” Thompson said.
Residents with homes built in an era with more lead in solder, piping or fittings – particularly those built before 1986 – can minimize potential exposure by flushing the tap for 30 seconds to two minutes before using water for drinking or cooking.
“Your water service provider should have a better idea of whether lead service lines were ever used in your area,” said Gary Kremen, who represents the Los Altos area on the Santa Clara Valley Water District board. “Most homes that are older than 40 years have had the indoor plumbing replaced with copper pipe. If uncertain, a plumber might be able to determine if this is the case.”
How to test for yourself
Parents can request an order for a lead-level blood test from pediatricians but may need to take the time to do the blood draw at a separate laboratory. Cal Water customers can ask to be added to the lead and copper monitoring program, which means that their homes may be added to the next round of sampling. Residents who want to test their water immediately must use a private laboratory. Cal Water provides a list of certified local labs at calwater.com.