High lead levels in drinking water found in 139 San Diego child care centers
In San Diego County, 139 child care centers have reported lead levels in drinking water above state safety standards, according to state data.
Centers built before 2010 are required to test all faucets and drinking fountains, per Assembly Bill 2370. If levels are above five parts lead per billion particles, they have to be fixed. It's part of the licensing requirements for child care centers.
If the law is not followed, repeat violators could be charged with a misdemeanor and fined or jailed.
The testing data that has been made public shows most child care centers are in compliance. But about one in four childcare centers across the state had lead levels above the limit.
The Environmental Working Group sponsored the lead testing law and first obtained the results from state officials.
"We’re really concerned," said Susan Little, a senior advocate of California government affairs for the Environmental Working Group. "What’s alarming here is that we really see this as potentially the tip of the iceberg. Because the data we received only represents about 50% of licensed child care centers. We’re still waiting to get the results from the rest of them."
There is no safe level of lead in drinking water according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One San Diego child care center has the highest testing result in California so far. La Petite Academy on Carmel Mountain Road had one test from August 2022 that showed 11,300 lead parts per billion — 2,260 times the state limit. Another test at the same center showed 787 lead parts per billion.
A total of 28 tests were done at the location and eight showed lead levels above the limit. Of those, six samples measured between five and eight parts per billion. A spokesperson for La Petite Academy, which has locations across the state, said the sources with the highest lead samples were two drinking fountains that had not been used since before the pandemic.
"These specific fountains were immediately removed from the building," said Courtney McKenzie with Learning Care Group, the parent company of La Petite Academy. "We partnered with (a) water safety expert to remediate the remaining outlets — none of which were used for drinking water — including replacing faucets and supply lines and eliminating potential buildup."
McKenzie said after retesting, all water sources are in compliance with state standards. State law requires centers to notify parents of the lead testing results.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency people cannot see, taste or smell lead in water. Lead pipes are most likely to be found in older cities and homes built before 1986 the EPA said. It gets into water when those pipes corrode. Lead only poses a risk through ingestion by eating, drinking or breathing it in.
Lead can come from a variety of sources including paint, water, certain products and even airplane fuel said Dr. Vi Nguyen, a San Diego-based pediatrician and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' California committee on environmental health. She tests children for lead exposure as early as one year old in her practice.
"No one wants a child to have lead — it leads to all these downstream effects ... Probably the most common thing is neurodevelopmental issues. Because lead is a neurotoxin it deposits in the brain, teeth, bones, liver. It’s toxic to the brain cells. And it can increase the risk of ADHD, autism because it just shifts the IQ curve."Dr. Vi Nguyen, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' California committee on environmental health
"No one wants a child to have lead — it leads to all these downstream effects," she said.
Nguyen said children are generally at higher health risks from lead exposure than adults.
"Probably the most common thing is neurodevelopmental issues. Because lead is a neurotoxin it deposits in the brain, teeth, bones, liver," she said. "It’s toxic to the brain cells. And it can increase the risk of ADHD, autism because it just shifts the IQ curve."
Nguyen said prolonged exposure to lead is particularly bad for kids health.
"Babies and children — they’re not fully developed yet so their organs are still growing and absorbing so they tend to absorb more of the environmental toxins per body surface area than adults," Nguyen said.
La Petite Academy officials said they have no reports of anyone getting sick. They said they posted the test results at the school.
The third highest lead reading from drinking water at a child care center in San Diego County was at the Eastlake Community Church Preschool in Chula Vista. A test from last October showed 570 lead parts per billion, well above the state’s five part per billion baseline. The director of the preschool said in a statement that 26 water outlets were tested and two bathroom sinks had elevated levels.
"Fortunately, the affected bathroom sinks were used exclusively for hand washing and not for consumption of drinking water," said Sherri Kelly, director of Eastlake Community Church Preschool. "We have already taken the necessary measures to correct the issue, including replacing the hardware and restricting use of the two affected faucets."
Kelly said the sinks are restricted from use while the center awaits results from retesting.
The fourth highest lead result in San Diego County was from the Next Generation Educational Center in El Cajon. One test from January found a 340 lead parts per billion reading. A representative from the El Cajon center said in a statement that the center has only used bottled water for drinking since it was first licensed in 2011 but did not say whether any corrective action has been taken since the lead testing.
"Our sinks are used for hand washing only," said Geralyn Windt with the Next Generational Education Center. "Parents are required to bring their own filled baby bottles or water bottles."
A spokesperson for California's Department of Social Services, which regulates child care centers, said as of May 15, tests have been uploaded for 7,000 child care centers. There are about 14,500 in the state. Those built after 2010 and centers without outlets for drinking water or food preparation do not have to test for lead.
The complete list of test results can be accessed here.