California schools, communities not immune to lead in water

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Since the beginning of the school year, the drinking fountains have been off limits for students at Foothill Intermediate School.

Lead in the drinking water frequently rises to unhealthy levels at the school an hour's drive north of Sacramento, forcing officials to haul in bottled water until they find the source of the contamination and remove it.

"We'll do whatever it takes," said Ryan DiGiulio, an assistant superintendent at Marysville Joint Unified School District, which has three campuses plagued with lead problems. "We want kids to come to school and staff to teach them with no health issues."

An Associated Press analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data shows that nearly 1,400 water systems nationwide including dozens in California reported lead levels exceeding the government's allowable level of 15 parts per billion at least once between Jan. 1, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2015.

The recent crisis of lead in the water in Flint, Michigan, has raised questions about whether local water systems as far away as California were also tainted with lead, putting people in danger. Fetuses and children under six are at the greatest risk of harm from lead poisoning as their brains and nervous systems form, potentially leading to lifelong learning problems.

In California, the federal data show that roughly 57 water systems, including schools, parks, prisons and neighborhoods, reported being over the allowable lead content within the last three years.

Some of the readings, however, were recorded in error when the state manually input data collected from local water systems, said Cindy Forbes, deputy director of the State Water Resources Control Board's Division of Drinking Water.

State water officials said they are closely monitoring 19 water systems. Some are included in the analysis of the federal data as exceeding the allowable limits for lead. Forbes said thatCalifornia is better off than many other states.

"Let's face it, we benefit from the fact that the West Coast distribution systems are probably 100 years newer than those in the East Coast and Midwest," Forbes said.

A significant group of water systems serving schools or daycare centers reported problems, with 278 systems total in nearly every state. In California, there were 11 schools or daycares, most in the rural Central Valley's communities.

In the Marysville district, officials expect to spend tens of thousands of dollars this year on bottles of water for three campuses. Large jugs are stacked in a hallway at Foothill Intermediate, and fountain spouts are wrapped with tape. A notice taped to the fountains warns that the water is unfit for drinking.

The district is searching for the sources of the lead — replacing faucets and examining everything from the wells to plumbing throughout each campus, DiGiulio said. Until each lead source is discovered and repaired, he said, the district has no choice but to buy bottled water.

"We've been taking all the precautions," DiGiulio said. "It just takes time."

Some water systems reporting unhealthy levels of lead have resolved the problem.

Deuel Vocational Institution, a men's prison near Tracy, replaced five old faucets in a maintenance yard that made lead levels soar to nearly seven times the allowed level, saidCalifornia Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Bill Sessa.

And a defunct youth prison in Southern California reporting even higher levels has been empty for at least five years, he said, adding that, "There's nobody there to drink the water."

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