On April 23rd, the LAUSD school board approved the allocation of $15 million towards comprehensive lead testing and the establishment of water infrastructure to keep lead levels below 5 parts per billion (in contrast to the state level of 15 ppb).
This is an important step in reducing a known hazard in the schools. It is important to remember, however, that this is not just a question of not-poisoning our students. Water is a basic need, and schools–where students spend more waking hours than they do in their own homes–need to provide water for students in the same way that they provide safety from violence and other basic health and safety needs. In addition, the lack of access to clean and safe drinking water at school leads students to rely on purchased beverages at school, creating a financial burden and also leading to greater consumption of sugary drinks which in turn lead to greater risks of overweight, obesity, and diabetes. Data from 2016 shows that in LA County, 41% of children consume 1 or more sugar-sweetened beverages each day. The safety of drinking water therefore has wide ranging health impacts, and this $15 million puts resources towards to the provision of adequate drinking water to students: An issue that has been alarmingly underprioritzed and underfunded up until now, at the expense of student health.
This basic human need for clean drinking water has historically been deprioritized and underfunded in the school system. The federal government officially requires that all schools that serve meals to students through the National School Lunch Program provide drinking water in their cafeterias or eating areas. However, the federal government also does not consider water to be a food, and therefore does not provide any funding or cost reimbursement for schools to support the infrastructure or on-going costs to provide water as part of their meal program. In 2010, California passed legislation with similar requirements, mandating that CA schools make water accessible during meal times and encouraging water refilling stations, but the legislation provided few financial resources to schools actually implement these costly changes. Therefore schools have continued to rely on aging drinking fountain infrastructure to meet water access needs, even when we know that these old systems are inadequate for the number of students using them and potentially dangerous because of high lead levels at some school sites.
LAUSD is taking action to put needed funds towards updating drinking water infrastructure, and will finally start to fulfill years of promises by federal, state, and local agencies to provide for the health of students.