SACRAMENTO — Public schools throughout California were warned Saturday to immediately shut off refrigerated drinking fountains, until health officials can determine whether the water is contaminated by high levels of lead.
Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, citing recent findings of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control, said school officials should use the Christmas holiday period to determine whether school water supplies are safe for students and staff.
"We will be working with public health officials to make sure that the hazard of lead is dealt with," Honig said. "We don't want anyone to over-dramatize this situation nor do we want anyone to sweep it under the rug."
In a report released earlier this month, the CDC found that lead levels in these electrified refrigerated fountains are as much as 40 times higher than the EPA's proposed safe level of 20 parts per billion. The current standard is 50 ppb.
Health experts warn that high-level exposure to lead can impair mental functions in children and cause kidney disease in adults,
The CDC's report was based on 159 samples of drinking water drawn from fountains in federal buildings in Washington. None of the samples were taken from schools, although officials said the fountains under question are commonly found in schools and offices.
Officials of the Los Angeles Unified School District said earlier that virtually none of the district's 818 schools have electric drinking fountains in areas used by students.
The problem may be concentrated in newer and refurbished schools that more commonly incorporated refrigerated fountains into their designs, Honig said. The superintendent also noted that the refrigeration units may be concealed in walls and not be obvious to the user.
Honig said that laboratory tests can quickly determine whether water from the fountains is safe and that non-refrigerated fountains can be used in the meantime.
"Schools will be shut down for the next two weeks, and that gives principals and district superintendents an opportunity to deal with the problem," he said.
According to the CDC, adults absorb 10% to 15% of lead in food but 35% to 50% of lead found in water. Children absorb lead even more readily.
Officials said the lead appears to leach into the water when it is held in lead-lined tanks or comes into contact with lead-based solder.