May 12, 2023

Six SF preschools test unsafe for lead

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Six San Francisco preschools have water faucets that tested higher than the city's acceptable level of lead, according to emails sent by the school district to teachers and staff.

Those preschools are located at E.R. Taylor Elementary School in the Portola, Bryant Elementary School in the Mission, George Washington Carver Elementary in the Bayview, Bret Harte Elementary School in Sunnydale, Grattan Elementary near Parnassus, and Rooftop Elementary School near Twin Peaks, according to Laura Dudnick, the spokesperson for the San Francisco Unified School District.

But Tiffany Delloue, who works at E.R. Taylor, learned that the main elementary school's drinking water also tested positive for lead last week during a staff meeting. At that meeting, administrators told the school's staff the results of tests conducted at the school in March. Remedies — faucets covered with a plastic bag to prevent students from using them — happened in the last week, teachers said.

According to an email obtained by Mission Local, 16 out of the 57 water faucets tested at E.R. Taylor had lead levels higher than the acceptable 5 parts per billion, the level the San Francisco school district considers acceptable.

Two of those faucets tested even higher — above 15 parts per billion, the Environmental Protection Agency's safety level.

"That was the straw breaking the back," Delloue said about learning about the lead. "Of everybody."

At the main E.R. Taylor elementary school, lead-laced faucets were reported in eight classrooms, one hallway drinking fountain, and the kitchen, according to an email from the district head of facilities Dawn Kamalanathan sent to school staff. At the on-site preschool, two out of the four faucets tested showed abnormal lead levels, one in a classroom and another in the kitchen.

In the email to staff, Kamalanathan stressed that 41 water outlets at the school tested safe.

The district took the problem faucets out of service at the elementary school in the last week by wrapping them in plastic bags, and sent the preschool a water filtration system, teachers said. It did not send bottled water to the elementary school, Delloue said.

The situation has students and parents alike concerned during the end of the school year. "There's kids ripping off bags," said Laura Hy, a second-grade teacher whose classroom water supply contained lead levels of 19 parts per billion. "In WeChat groups, a lot of Asian parents are making appointments to have check-ups."

First graders in Delloue's class are afraid, the teacher said. "They said, ‘Oh, we can't wash our hands because it’ll make us sick. We can't wash our paint brushes because we’ll get hurt.’"

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And, though the school year is winding down, dozens of students are expected at the school's summer program next week, where students will play numerous outdoor sports and likely need to hydrate, Delloue said. "They need to have a safe, clean environment, and safe drinking water."

In 2018, California passed a law, AB2370, mandating lead testing of childcare facilities across the state no later than 2023. In the summer of 2022, the San Francisco Unified School District and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission began testing sites like preschools and elementary schools, Dudnick wrote in an email statement.

The district found that at least six schools had lead levels higher than the acceptable 5 parts per billion, including an on-site preschool at E.R Taylor.

On March 13, the district began re-testing the preschool faucets at E.R. Taylor that had earlier tested unsafe, according to an email obtained by Mission Local. On May 13, it also tested the elementary school faucets, which may share the same pipes as the preschool, Dudnick said.

On May 22, the same day the elementary school test results were received by the district, teachers were informed, Dudnick said.

Exposure to lead can lead to a variety of development issues, including brain damage that can affect learning, hearing, speech and behavior. Children are particularly susceptible and can harbor unsafe levels of lead in their blood without any outward symptoms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there is "No safe blood lead level in children has been identified," and warns that "Even low levels of lead in blood can hurt a child's ability to learn, pay attention and do well in school."

It does, however, consider children with more than 3.5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to have the "highest blood lead levels." The California Department of Public Health considers levels above 4.5 micrograms to be "elevated," and University of California, San Francisco, Benioff Children's Hospital considers anything above 5 micrograms abnormal.

Children at E.R.Taylor have not yet had their lead levels tested. It's unclear if students at other affected schools have tested their lead levels.

Dudnick said the district is sharing information with family and students, and that unsafe faucets are taken offline immediately.

"SFUSD takes seriously our responsibility to provide a safe and healthy environment for students and staff," said the school district's spokesperson, Laura Dudnick, adding that the district is "committed to transparency."

The district additionally plans a "new school lead-testing program" in October, 2024, to meet new federal levels for lead and copper, Dudnick said.

One in four childcare facilities across California has elevated lead levels, according to an analysis of recently released state data. More than three dozen San Francisco schools have at least one faucet with levels above 5 parts per billion.

But teachers at E.R. Taylor elementary allege that remediation efforts have been a disaster. They say that school district staff erroneously cordoned off faucets that were safe, while ignoring faucets with lead-laced water — including one sink reporting a lead level of 19 parts per billion, almost four times the acceptable level in San Francisco.

The principal at E.R. Taylor, who did not respond to Mission Local's request for comment, "was furious there was a mix up" where supposedly safe faucets were bagged, Delloue said.

The principal told the school district that faucets identified on the list should be cordoned off. But, Delloue said, teachers remain skeptical that the school district staff know which is which. "We just don't trust the district."

Meanwhile the on-site preschool had apparently tested positive for lead back in January, according to Elizabeth Lyons, a preschool teacher.

Preschool teachers returned from winter break to find their bathroom sinks bagged with no explanation. They did not know there were unsafe lead levels in their school, Lyons said.

"How does anybody even conceive of doing this, and not tell the staff or the parents?" Lyons said. "If the parents don't advocate, nothing happens."

But Lyons said it wasn't until she asked about the bags after the break that she learned about the lead. She urged parents of some 32 students to call the school district, which promptly fixed the issues and sent a water filtration system.

Still, the faucet in Lyons’ classroom and the cafeteria remain out of service.

Additionally, the elementary school staff were not informed when the preschool tested for lead in January, according to Delloue.

Delloue also wondered why tests at the elementary school did not start until March if the preschool on-site was tested in January, and questioned why staff were not informed of the unsafe levels until the last week of school. "To me, the timeline is concerning," Delloue said. "How come we’ve never talked about it?"

The school has already experienced numerous other issues, teachers said, including sewage backups that spill onto the bathroom floor, and rodents. Hy, for her part, "never trusted" the water in her classroom because it is "slightly yellow." She has previously asked parents to bring in bottled water.

The news of unsafe lead levels is just extra discouragement, Delloue said. "I feel bad for our families," she said. The teacher described the majority of parents as working-class, many of whom have two or three jobs at nail salons or as Uber and Lyft drivers. They do not have the time to advocate for themselves, she said. "They really pray the teachers do that."

The majority of the students at E.R. Taylor are of Chinese descent, and about a quarter are Latinx, teachers said.

Staff are now asking for a question-and-answer session with the district, similar to one held by the district when Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 found lead and arsenic on-site last winter. The school received blood tests free of charge, thanks to community advocates, and no students or staff reported dangerous lead levels.

Hy wants clarification on next steps and remediation when school resumes, too. She asked, "What [happens] a month later? Two months later?"

Delloue wants bottled water to be sent immediately for the summer program. "I bought some, but that's not our job to buy water and bring it to school," she said. "It's been really stressful and confusing for the children."

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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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