OAKLAND (CBS SF) — A consumer advocacy group has joined a long list of Oakland educators and activists to call on the Oakland Unified School District to take stronger action to prevent lead exposure in schools after lead was found in the water at eight schools in the district.

The California Public Interest Research Group, or CALPIRG, submitted a letter to the Oakland school board Wednesday seeking several policy changes, including stepping up its testing for lead and adding filtration systems.

The group also held a press conference outside Oakland City Hall Wednesday to call for the school board to quickly make policy changes and allocate funds to address the issue.

Reports of lead in the water at Oakland schools first emerged in August, when the district acknowledged finding lead in the water at McClymonds High School after school officials reported problems with the water supply at the school, particularly one water fountain at the football field and the kitchen faucets in the cafeteria.

Lead had already been discovered in the high school’s shower in August 2016, but the showers are out of commission. District spokesman John Sasaki said Wednesday that at the time, the district tested other water sources at the school and found no other lead contamination.

But since the discovery of more lead contamination this year, the school district has been testing the water at all its 86 other schools, and found lead contamination at some sinks and drinking fountains in seven more schools: Glenview Elementary School, Burckhalter Elementary School, Joaquin Miller Elementary School, Brookfield Elementary School, American Indian
Charter High School, Fruitvale Elementary School and Thornhill Elementary School.

Each time the district found lead in a particular sink or fountain, that water source was shut down. All faucets with elevated lead levels have either been replaced or will be replaced, Sasaki said. But only about 50 schools have been tested so far, so it’s possible that more lead will turn up at other schools.

No school has had lead throughout its water system, indicating that it’s not the pipes that are causing the lead contamination but the faucets and fountains, Sasaki said.

“We know definitely that it is not the piping system,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to protect our kids and make sure they are safe and healthy and the water they drink is safe and healthy.”

Oakland school board member Roseann Torres said Wednesday that the district may need the assistance of the city and county to really address the problems with lead exposure.

“This is a really complicated and costly fix,” she said. Torres added that she is working on getting emergency funding allocated to prevent lead exposure in schools and expects the school board will be voting on policy around the issue by the end of the year.

Noemi Spinazzi, a pediatrician at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, explained at Wednesday’s news conference why the findings of lead in school water is so concerning, as it can have serious health impacts on children.

Children’s bodies treat lead like necessary minerals such as iron or calcium, storing it in bones, blood or the brain, she said. Accumulations in the brain can cause brain damage ranging from developmental issues to seizures and coma in extreme cases, she said.

Lead contamination has proved to be a bigger problem in poor and minority neighborhoods, such as the widespread lead contamination recently discovered in Flint, Michigan. Recent research has shown that Oakland children are exposed to some of the highest lead levels in the country, though most of that is from lead paint in residences.

But the findings of lead exposure in school has many parents clamoring for immediate action.

“This is an immediate problem for our children,” said Ayanna Davis, the program director for the non-profit organization Healthy Black Families. “Our schools are the place where they spend most of their time, five days a week.”

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