- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
The first study of California law that requires schools to test tap water for lead found that the majority completed the testing on time, and only 3% reported any tested taps with lead in the water higher than the state's 15 parts per billion (ppb) limit. About 30% of the 240 randomly selected public schools in the study didn't report their results within three months of the deadline.
The study, Water Safety in California Public Schools Following Implementation of School Drinking Water Policies, was published in the January issue of Preventing Chronic Disease, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention online publication.
“Because we strongly encourage people to drink water rather than sugary beverages, we need to have confidence that tap water is safe,” she said. “But this is a complex issue with shared responsibility among public water systems, school administrators and regulating agencies.”
Access to safe drinking water in schools is essential to help avoid the developmental and health consequences for children associated with consuming contaminated water, under hydration or excessive intake of sugary beverages.
Schools that get water from public utilities can expect the water they receive to meet federal and state water quality standards. However, 16% of study schools received water from a utility that violated health-based standards, such as elevated levels of contaminants or failure to adhere to disinfectant protocols. When water flows into buildings through pipes that contain lead – such as those made entirely of lead, or galvanized iron or leaded brass, or connected with lead solder – and especially when water sits stagnant in lead-containing plumbing, lead may leach into the water before it flows from the tap.
In October 2017, California passed Assembly Bill 746, which mandated that public water utilities sample and test for lead in tap water of public schools that were built before 2010. The law is designed to identify and mitigate sources of lead in water. Funds to upgrade school drinking-water plumbing were also earmarked in the state budget. Working with their local water suppliers, the schools selected taps for sampling. The number of taps that released water with lead was very low, and even those sources are not necessarily unhealthy for drinking, Hecht said.
“When we test tap water, we're not talking about every drop of water that comes from the tap,” she said. “We test the first water that comes out of the tap after it has been stagnant in the pipes. Once the taps are in use and water is flowing, the lead level should drop dramatically.”
Although few schools (3%) had even one tap in violation of California state standards for lead, violations increased to 16% when the federal Food and Drug Administration standard for bottled water was applied. The FDA requires that bottled water not exceed 5 ppb of lead.
The 174 schools in the study collectively tested 1,238 independent water sources – such as playground, hallway and gym drinking fountains, classroom faucets, food service areas and restroom taps in 2019. Some of the tests took place in locations that serve staff, such as teachers' lounges, nurses' stations, distribution sources and maintenance areas. Without detailed guidelines to follow, some schools tested only 1 tap; others tested as many as 76.
“Testing only a subset of taps in a facility prevents full identification of which schools need to undertake lead remediation actions,” Hecht said.
Hecht and her co-authors – Isioma Umunna, Anisha Patel and Lauren Blacker of Stanford University, Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, and Emily Altman of UC Berkeley – conclude that, in the future, states should require schools to test to nondetectable levels of lead for maximum data collection and require that at least one water source in food service areas be tested.
The information and recommendations from the study are already informing California legislation designed to protect children from lead exposure from water. A new law, Assembly Bill 2370, will require all licensed childcare centers to test taps for lead by 2021 and every 5 years thereafter. The inconsistencies experienced in AB 746 compliance revealed the need for detailed guidelines on the number of taps facilities should test, the required locations for testing, clear naming conventions to identify taps and reporting procedures.
- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
However, a team of UC Cooperative Extension and UC Davis scientists have found that low-quality tap water in some rural immigrant communities could be an obstacle to making this healthy dietary change.
The study was conducted in conjunction with a five-year research and outreach project underway in Firebaugh and San Joaquin, small communities in the San Joaquin Valley with high Mexican-American populations. The researchers are investigating whether a community-based intervention – involving nutrition education, a monthly voucher of $25 to purchase fruit and vegetables, and a physical activity program – can help prevent childhood obesity in Californians of Mexican descent living in low-income rural communities. UC Agriculture and Natural Resources and UC Davis were recipients of a $4.8 million National Institute for Food and Agriculture grant to carry out this research.
Twenty-seven mothers in the study shared with the researchers whether they use tap water and gave their perceptions of tap water quality. In addition, the researchers assessed local water quality by the frequency of violations reported by Cal EPA and contaminant-level data from the California Department of Public Health.
All 27 mothers said they avoid drinking tap water due to unpleasant taste, dirty or yellow appearance, excessive iron or general “contamination.” Most of the women rely instead on bottled, and to a lesser extent, home filtered water for drinking and cooking.
“This cost is an extra burden for these families, many of whom have limited incomes,” said Lucia Kaiser, UCCE specialist in the Department of Nutrition at UC Davis.
The mothers shared in interviews that at least 38 percent of their children aged 3 to 8 years old drank sugar-sweetened beverages – such as soda, energy drinks, powered drink mixes or fruit punch – more than two or three times per week.
Two state-regulated water systems serve the majority of people in Firebaugh and San Joaquin. The rest rely on at least 11 small public or private systems. All of the 13 systems have had monitoring violations in the last 12 years. Two have had reporting violations, indicating that they either did not test for contaminants or did not report their findings.
The mothers' perception that tap water was unappealing or contaminated was confirmed when the researchers took a close look at regulatory analyses reports from previous years. There were low-levels of arsenic detected, which fell above the benchmark for safe drinking water in the U.S. The analyses also detected high levels of manganese and iron, which are considered secondary contaminants and do not have enforceable limits set by the EPA. However, the World Health Organization has set health benchmarks for manganese, which were exceeded in some samples.
“The neurotoxic effects of manganese and chronic exposure to low levels of arsenic warrant further study,” Kaiser said. “Even if it's not dangerous, the high level of manganese and iron can give the water an off taste.”
Regardless, removing the contaminants may not matter if perceptions and drinkability are not improved. A possible solution is better communication.
“A simple step could be sending easy-to-understand water quality reports to all residents,” Kaiser said. “Sending reports to renters in addition to property owners and in Spanish as well as English will help raise awareness about the safety of local tap water.”
The study was funded in part by the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research, which developed a two-page policy brief outlining the research findings. UC Davis doctoral student Caitlin French was the main author. Other contributors, in addition to Kaiser, were post-doctoral researcher Rosa Gomez-Camacho, UCCE nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor Cathi Lamp and UC Davis nutrition professor Adela de la Torre.
In the policy brief, the authors included some additional suggestions to address the issue:
- Increase state funds to agencies working to identify who is at risk in order to bring more water systems into compliance
- Provide subsidies for home water filters
- Provide subsidies to private well owners in exchange for testing reports
- Step up outreach to owners of targeted private water systems in known problem areas
- Provide funding for additional research to inform outreach messages about substituting tap water for sugar-sweetened beverages
An initiative to maintain and enhance healthy families and communities is part of the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.