Last fall, months before San Diego Unified School District began testing all schools’ drinking water for lead, it did a special round of tests a Sunset View Elementary in Point Loma. The district found lead but didn’t tell parents. Rather, it told one parent – the one who’d requested a lead test.

The lead was coming from a key device known as a backflow preventer. All the water the school uses passes through the device before it reaches sinks, faucets and fountains at the 480-student school.

Water coming from the device was found to contain lead – 15 parts of lead per billion parts water, right on the edge of what is considered an alarming level of lead to have in drinking water.

The tests were done in late September at the urging of a parent who was concerned about construction going on near the school.

When the results came back in early October, the district notified that parent but no others. The district took no further action.

“The results were shared with the concerned parent, and the parent was satisfied with the results,” school district spokesman Samer Naji said in an email.

The district also found small but detectable levels of lead coming from five other taps it tested at Sunset View – the highest being 2.5 parts per billion. No level of lead is considered safe, especially for young children, but levels of lead that low don’t require any action.

Water is also not a major source of lead poisoning here: In San Diego County, it’s estimated that only about 1 percent of known cases of childhood lead poisoning result from leaded water.

But should the high lead level found on the device at Sunset View have caused the district to replace the device, or at least notify parents? San Diego Unified offered variety of defenses for its decision not to act or alert every parent about the results.

The lead level found on the device – 15 parts per billion – was not considered alarming at the time, according to federal guidelines that said schools should worry about lead levels above 20 parts per billion.

That same level, however, is now the threshold for causing alarm: When the State Water Resources Control Board announced a new lead testing program in January – three months after the tests at Sunset View – it used a tougher standard, the 15-parts-per-billion standard, which was already used by the state’s Division of Drinking Water to ensure the safety of municipal drinking water supplies.

The district also had evidence that the device wasn’t contaminating the rest of the school’s drinking water, because five samples taken at fountains inside of the school showed lower levels of lead in the water.

Naji said San Diego Unified staff believed that the very act of testing the device for lead, which involved opening a valve that is not usually opened, sent lead into the water.

Here’s a diagram the district provided:


“District staff concluded that the elevated level was due to the operation of the test cock valve, which would not regularly be utilized,” Naji said. “The sampling results for the fountains were low, indicating that the district’s assumption was correct. For that reason, the backflow was not replaced.”

Since lead was discovered at Emerson-Bandini Elementary School earlier this year, public scrutiny has focused on the safety of school drinking water supplies. San Diego Unified has begun working with the city’s water department to get all its schools tested by the end of the school year.

Like Emerson-Bandini, plumbing problems at Sunset View were once used by the district to help convince voters to approve tax hikes to pay for school repairs. Another school that recently tested positive for lead, Birney Elementary in University Heights, was also one of the schools that officials said in 2012 they knew had “aged/deteriorated plumbing.”

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, a San Diego Democrat, has taken a lot of interest in drinking water quality. She introduced a bill that would require schools to notify parents about any test that showed more than 15 parts per billion lead in school water. She said that is meant to make sure parents “know if there might be contamination our children might have been exposed to.”

Because the highest lead reading at Sunset View was 15 parts per billion and the trigger to notify parents is anything above that, the district still may not have had to notify parents if the bill were law.

But Gonzalez Fletcher’s bill also requires schools to test every tap if any result comes back showing more than 5 parts of lead per billion parts water in any sample. That’s because one bit of lead in one place may indicate larger problems that may be going undetected because tests tend to sample only a handful of taps.

“We’re playing hit and miss,” Gonzalez Fletcher said. “We have to a standard that says, hey, some of these older schools are coming up really close – that would suggest there are some problems there.”

Ashly McGlone contributed to this story.

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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