Getting the Lead Out: Doctor who uncovered the Flint water crisis comes to San Diego - #BetterSD

Posted: Saturday, November 3rd 2018

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

In 2015, the City of Flint, Michigan became a symbol for the national crisis of lead in our drinking water. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha found children in Flint were being severely damaged by their exposure to lead. Next week, Dr. Hanna-Attisha will be in San Diego, and she has bold advice for local officials on responding to the lead issue.

“Lead is unfortunately in school water throughout the nation," Dr. Hanna-Attisha said. “Schools are meant to be places were children learn and develop, not places where you can potentially be exposed to a neurotoxin which impedes learning and development.”

San Diego Unified began targeted testing for lead in school drinking water in 2017, working with its water provider, the City of San Diego, to assess the extent of the problem. Tests found elevated levels of lead in about 20 percent of schools tested. Outlets with elevated levels of lead were turned off, so students could not drink from them until they were repaired or replaced. The district also made plans to expand testing to include every outlet at every school.

“I’m so excited to hear about the San Diego Unified School District and their efforts to make sure that kids in school have the safest drinking water possible. … San Diego is leading the nation in its investment in children,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said. She will be speaking on November 10 at the University of San Diego’s Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice Theatre. She has launched an initiative to mitigate the impact of the Flint water crisis and to assist communities across the country. She has written a book on the subject called “What the Eyes Don’t See.” 

San Diego Unified’s lead remediation effort was triggered by the public health crisis in Flint. Following the crisis, the State of California mandated local water providers test school drinking water if asked by schools. San Diego Unified was one of the first districts in the state to utilize this program. Between April and June 2017, the district’s water provider, the City of San Diego, drew up to five samples of water at each district campus. When levels exceeded the state and federal “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb), the district quickly secured fixtures, notified parents and began remediation. This round of testing set the stage for the district’s robust water remediation effort, developed last summer.

In July 2017, the school board strengthened the “action level” to 5 ppb and directed staff to test every single drinking water outlet. This new standard matches the Food and Drug Administration's standard for bottled water.

“In our district, we have set the toughest standards for clean drinking water in the state,” School Board President Kevin Beiser said at last month’s State of the District. “San Diego Unified School District has started a public health trend in California with this new, strict lead action level. Following our adoption of the 5 ppb standard, Oakland and Berkeley Unified School District have also strengthened their lead standards.”

Beiser continued: “Public health experts are clear, there is no safe level of lead. San Diego Unified agrees. The lower we are able to take lead levels in our water, the better the health of San Diego Unified students will be.”

The district is conducting a thorough sweep, testing every single drinking water outlet in the district to ensure all drinking water meets the district’s new strict standard of 5 parts per billion. One part per billion is the equivalent of one drop of water in an Olympic size swimming pool.

Whenever lead is found above 5 ppb, the district quickly secures those fixtures, notifies parents and begins remediation. Whenever lead is found above 15 ppb, a parent meeting with the County Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program is scheduled.

To reach the 5 ppb standard, funds from prior school bond programs are being utilized for remediation. To go lower than 5 ppb, substantial additional resources would be needed, and those resources are included in a bond, Measure YY, on the November ballot.

After remediation is complete, the district re-tests every impacted fixture to ensure remediation was successful. After a campus is tested, families are notified of the results. Sampling logs are posted here for review. Following remediation, a report is posted online explaining what steps were taken and the result of post-remediation tests.

While no student has been found to have elevated lead blood levels due to drinking water at a district school, San Diego Unified continues to encourage all families to learn more about lead exposure because it could be present in their homes and other places frequented by their child. The district encourages all families concerned about lead exposure to request a lead-blood screening from their doctor. The district’s Nursing and Wellness staff will assist families with signing up for insurance, finding a doctor or local community clinic and requesting a blood screening.

Getting the lead out of drinking water can be tedious and expensive work, but it’s also imperative, Dr. Hanna-Attisha said.

“The return on investment from lead elimination is priceless for a child's development, but can also be quantified by increases in economic productivity and decreases in education, health care and criminal justice costs,” she said. “It may be expensive now, but it will pay off tomorrow.”

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