LA Unified declares 60 schools' water fountains lead-safe in first phase of district-wide cleanup

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LAUSD's effort to eliminate lead contamination in tens of thousands of school water fountains is complete at 60 schools, while District officials say it will take another year-and-a-half to finish the process on all 986 L.A. Unified campuses.

Using the results of 2008 tests on the district's more than 40,000 fountains, crews are replacing fountains with lead in amounts above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's action level of 15 parts per billion; other fountains are determined to be below that level.

L.A. Unified didn't have the resources to review the 2008 tests until the school board approved a $19.8 million bond last fall to finance the cleanup, said Roger Finstad, L.A. Unified's director of maintenance and operations.

Now officials are working their way through the lead testing results for all district schools, starting with pre-kindergarten and elementary schools, according to the district.

There is no safe level of lead; its effects on children are particularly harmful. It can damage their nervous systems, slowing growth and development. It is also linked to learning and behavior problems in youngsters, as well as difficulties with hearing and speech.

Crews are working first at the schools with the fewest fountains that need repair or replacement, Finstad said.

The lead elimination project will also allow the district to eventually end its decades-old practice of running every working water fountain for 30 seconds every morning to get any lead out, according to L.A. Unified officials.

That process, called flushing, runs an estimated 2.5 million gallons of water down the drain each year, the district says.   

"We can then release [a school] from mandatory flushing if everything is good and meets EPA guidelines," Finstad said. "That’s an effort we didn’t go through in 2008, but we are doing it now."

L.A. Unified has been flushing all of its fountains since 1989, said Robert Laughton, the district's director of environmental health and safety. Officials continued the flushing after the 2008 lead tests to err on the side of safety, he said.

At the time it took some fountains off line and since then the district has installed filters at some sites to ensure safe drinking water, Laughton said.

L.A. Unified plans to finish the lead cleanup project by the fall of next year. The district says it's running seven crews daily and is hiring dozens more people to complete the project on time.

Once the effort is concluded, L.A. Unified safety inspectors will include random fountain lead testing in their annual school site inspections, said Laughton.

Faucets in classrooms are not part of the program, so those will continue to be for hand washing only.