In August, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) staff found out that McClymonds High School in West Oakland had discoloration, also known as sediment, in campus tap water. The sediment was found in the kitchen area of the school and certain drinking fountains. Lead was also traced to showerheads in the men’s football locker room.
According to OUSD communications director John Sasaki, the sediment in the drinking fountains and kitchen sink was coming from the fountainheads, and the lead that was detected in the showerheads was coming from the showerhead fixtures.
District officials say they solved the problem in August by replacing the showerhead fixtures inside the men’s locker room. They also shut down all the fountains with traces of sediment and replaced them with sparkling water dispensers.
Sasaki first learned about the contamination issue when he heard that the McClymond’s football coach brought drinking water from his mother’s house for every practice.
When the issue surfaced, Sasaki said the school district notified all parents, teachers, and students, telling them that repairs were going to be taking place, and that this situation was considered a high priority. “Naturally, there was concern by parents and guardians. No one wants lead anywhere near their kids, and we don’t want lead anywhere near our kids, either. The health and safety of the students within Oakland Unified School District is our primary concern,” said Sasaki.
Sasaki said Micro Analytical Laboratories, based in Emeryville, tested the school’s water. The laboratory staff did not find any lead in the water itself, but in the aging showerhead fixture in the men’s locker room.
“The showers tested at worst, about four times higher than the [Environmental Protection Agency’s] limits. Example: 42.6 parts per billion when the limit was 10 parts per billion. Some were about twice the limit,” Sasaki wrote in an email.
“We found higher than allowed lead levels coming from the showers and that was when you first turned it on. So, we shut the showers off completely and tested other areas of the school, but no lead elsewhere,” added Sasaki.
As a separate issue, the tests also revealed that there was sediment discoloring some of the school’s water. Alison Kastama, the manager of public affairs for the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), said that the source of the sediment is usually iron.
If people let the fountains and sinks run long enough, the water would begin to clear up and become drinkable, Sasaki said. “We see brownish water and it isn’t harmful, but of course no one wants to drink that,” Sasaki said.
Sasaki said that the drinking water fountains inside the school building had been shut off immediately following the test results, and replaced with water dispensers all over school. “We had to ensure our students have clean drinking water,” Sasaki said.
The district has now replaced many plumbing fixtures to make them safer for students to use. “We replaced all the fountainheads in the kitchen and added filters. We replaced that one fountainhead at the football field, and we installed a new line from the street to the fountains. Also, we added a water filter and spigots for the football team,” Sasaki said. A new line installed in the kitchen of the school allows the water to run sediment-free.
McClymond’s Principal Jarod M. Scott did not respond to repeated interview requests made by phone.
The school board member who represents this district says sediment is a common problem in school buildings. “The issue was noticed and is being addressed. To prevent sediment, you perform flushing on a regular basis. Because the buildup isn’t lead and it is sediment, we get that material from older pipes. Custodians are constantly flushing to keep the pipes from building up the sediment, so our students can have clean water,” said OUSD School Board Director Jumoke Hinton-Hodge. She represents District 3, which covers all West Oakland public schools.
Kastama said EBMUD is working to reduce the possibility of lead contamination in tap water. “Since the 1990s, we have had corrosion control in place and any lead found in the water was removed through this method,” said Kastama. Corrosion control is a method to keep lead and copper from leaching from pipes and into drinking water.
EBMUD officials routinely test local water for toxins like lead. “Anytime someone within [EBMUD’s] service area is having a problem with their water, they need call and request for testing to be done in their area. But for schools the protocol is different,” said Kastama. “The state changed the permit required for water agencies that we have to offer free lead testing for all K-12 schools.”
K-12 schools receive notices from EBMUD within their service areas to alert them of the free testing. They coordinate all of their testing with the school district. Once receiving confirmation from the district about the testing sites, EBMUD staffers take samples of the water to test the plumbing and the fixtures to see if there is anything leaching into the water.
Sasaki said that the OUSD is starting to test other schools. He said that 15 other schools have been tested and there was no detection of lead, but this process will continue over time.
In the meantime, EBMUD is offering free lead testing vouchers for people who have any lead concerns. This is available to school and community members within EBMUD’s service area.
Kastama said community members can see information about lead testing on EBMUD’s website, or call EBMUD’s 24-hour line at 866-403-2683.