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CA fails to enforce lead-testing law for thousands of noncompliant child care centers

A filtered hydration station at Clay Elementary School on Feb. 25, 2020.
Roland Lizarondo
A filtered hydration station at Clay Elementary School on Feb. 25, 2020.

After thousands of facilities failed to comply earlier this year with a new lead testing law meant to provide children with safe drinking water, the vast majority of them have yet to face consequences.

Just under 400 facilities have been cited by the California Department of Social Services for failing to test their lead levels as of July, according to data inewsource obtained through a records request. That’s despite as many as 7,800 larger child care facilities missing the Jan. 1 testing deadline, including more than 600 in San Diego and Imperial counties, and an acknowledgement by state officials that not complying with the law could pose an immediate risk to children’s health and safety.

Child care facilities serving more than eight children were required to test their drinking water for lead by the start of the year, per a 2018 law. Already, the state has found contamination exceeding the set limit of 5 parts per billion at a quarter of the centers that have complied with the testing, with some of the highest levels found at facilities in San Diego and Chula Vista.


Susan Little, a senior advocate for California government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, called enforcement of the law “unfortunate” and “disappointing” — and said it was “unconscionable” that many centers had yet to test their drinking water. The nonprofit sponsored the legislation requiring the testing and publicly released facilities’ results earlier this year.

“That is definitely concerning,” Little said. “We would hope that the Department of Social Services would follow up on its own licensing requirements. (Facilities) are supposed to comply according to their licensing under the state.”

She added that providers know about lead's hazards “and should do all that they can to protect children in their care."

Lead is a naturally occurring metal that can be found in a range of products such as gasoline, paint, plumbing fixtures and water faucets. It can be especially harmful to children because their bodies can absorb more lead, which can damage their brains and nervous systems.

Though the state has set a limit, there is no amount of lead in drinking water that’s considered safe.


A DSS spokesperson did not answer why the agency had cited only a mere fraction of the noncompliant facilities, but did say it continues to receive test results from centers that missed the deadline earlier this year.

Most of the facilities cited for missing the deadline were in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Orange counties — the same areas that had a high number of noncompliant facilities.

All 58 of the state’s counties had at least one larger child care provider that did not test before the Jan. 1 cutoff, an inewsource database shows. But citations were given in only 34 counties. In San Diego, just 29 citations were issued among the some 570 providers overdue for testing; only one was given out of 57 Imperial County providers that missed the deadline.

Those centers will need to correct the issue ahead of a future, unannounced DSS visit.

Child care centers that continue to not comply could ultimately face civil penalties and also have their license suspended or revoked, but the department said to date no facilities have had their license impacted because of failure to conduct lead testing.

Officials were unable to confirm whether any noncompliant facilities have incurred fines, saying that information would need to be obtained by filing a public records request.

Assemblymember Chris Holden, a Pasadena Democrat who introduced the 2018 bill, said the number of facilities yet to test their drinking water for lead was “troubling.” But he stood by legislators’ efforts to ensure “our child care centers are a lead free environment for our children,” he said in a statement to inewsource.

“I will continue to work with my colleagues to ensure that childcare centers are abiding by these important lead testing requirements,” Holden said. “I am optimistic in knowing that beyond the legislation, there are a host of advocates, community organizations, and leaders who are invested in correcting this problem, and studies like (inewsource’s reporting) will only help us all to fill in the gaps.”

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