The Los Angeles Unified School District has begun a comprehensive program to test for the presence of lead in water from refrigerated drinking fountains after a spot check found high lead contamination in several fountains tested at nine schools.
Lead at elevated levels can impair mental functions in children and result in progressive kidney disease in adults.
While district officials said they cannot be sure that the high lead levels found in the initial sampling are representative of fountains throughout the district, there was cause for concern.
"The initial study . . . indicated that it was a situation that really deserved our immediate attention," said David Koch, the district's administrator of business services. "As you know, we're dealing with a number of younger adults and children and the studies indicate they are more sensitive to the negative effects of lead than adults are. We felt it was particularly important to the school district to assure that we had a safe water supply," Koch said.
The school district's test results come at a time when Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) has warned that hundreds of thousands of refrigerated drinking water coolers in use today contain lead that could contaminate the water.
The estimate is based on new information submitted by six manufacturers, three of which said that they had used lead solder in the past in both refrigerated coolers attached to the water supply and refrigerated dispensers for bottled water. But the manufacturers said that all fountains and bottled water coolers produced today are lead-free.
One firm, the Halsey Taylor Co. of Freeport, Ill., reported that it did not stop using lead until last Dec. 18--just one week after Waxman's House health and environment subcommittee held hearings on the issue.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that lead concentrations not exceed 20 parts per billion (p.p.b.) of water, a standard urged more than 10 years ago by the National Academy of Sciences. But the EPA has delayed enforcement of that standard and the current level in federal regulations is 50 p.p.b.
In the Los Angeles schools study, the water was sampled after it sat overnight and after it sat for seven days during the Christmas vacation. In the overnight test, three of 10 refrigerated fountains produced water with lead concentrations above the 20 p.p.b. recommended level. After the water stood seven days, six of the 10 fountains delivered water with higher than recommended levels.
Koch said that refrigerated drinking water fountains were "the greatest area of suspicion." Also of concern was newer plumbing on which lead solder may have been used.
The elevated lead levels were found in refrigerated fountains at Eagle Rock High School, Latona Avenue School, Lokrantz Special Education Center, Pacoima Skill Center, Van Nuys Junior High School and Venice High School, and in an unchilled fountain and kitchen faucet at Hollenbeck Junior High School. Checks at Dana Junior High School and Willenberg Special Education Center found no high lead levels.
Engineers at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which conducted the laboratory analysis of the water samples, said that if the fountains are flushed for a few minutes each morning before school starts, lead levels would quickly drop to acceptable levels.
David Heumann, the DWP water quality engineer who supervised the water analyses, said the sample size was small and there was no way of knowing whether the levels of lead contamination found were representative of all 742 campuses throughout the district. The district's two-year testing program, which will cost $677,000, will take 165,000 samples. By comparison, fewer than 140 samples were taken from the nine schools in the spot check.
In the meantime, all refrigerated fountains have been shut off throughout the district as well as faucets where high lead levels were found. Bottled water is being provided when there is no other acceptable source, Koch said.
Tests in other school districts differed from the Los Angeles findings. In Orange County, school officials said lead contamination was not a problem there. In the Torrance Unified School District, all but one of 15 refrigerated fountains tested below the proposed EPA safe level. The exception was a fountain near the superintendent's office, which registered 400 p.p.b. It was disconnected. No fountains in the Long Beach Unified District exceeded the EPA recommended level.
Waxman first suggested late last year that refrigerated drinking fountains may be a source of lead contamination after preliminary results from Navy tests of 89 water fountains in two buildings in Maryland found instances in which lead levels exceeded by 40 times the EPA's recommended maximum contaminant level of 20 parts per billion.