The California legislature is considering a bill that would require childcare centers throughout the state to ensure their drinking water is lead free.
Public schools and childcare centers within public schools must already test their drinking water for lead under a state law that took effect this year. The new bill would extend this requirement to privately run childcare centers, mandating they take action to replace any water pipes and fixtures found to be leaching lead.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) with backing from the non-profit advocacy organization the Environmental Working Group, received unanimous support from two assembly committees earlier this year. The Committee on Appropriations is expected to decide next week whether to bring the bill before the full assembly for a vote, said Susan Little, EWG’s senior advocate for California government affairs.
“These centers care for about 70 percent of the kids in childcare in California. We see it as a priority to go ahead and try to take care of their water situation, any contamination they may be experiencing,” Little said. “Many of our kids spend eight to 10 hours a day in childcare centers…A large portion of their water is coming from those centers’ pipes and faucets.”
Children exposed to lead can suffer lasting brain damage, developmental delays, behavioral difficulties, and hearing and speech problems. Young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning because they are developing so rapidly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is especially true for formula-fed children who are more likely than breastfed infants to ingest large amounts of tap water, Little said.
About half a million children ages 1 through 5 in the United States have elevated levels of lead in their blood, the CDC estimates. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates as much as one-fifth of children’s lead exposure comes from drinking water.
Federal regulations require public water agencies to keep lead contamination below 15 parts per billion, an amount considered too high by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends no more than 1ppb of lead in water at schools and childcare sites. Additional lead can leak into a building’s water supply through old pipes, faucets and drinking fountains.
An EWG analysis of state data collected so far on lead contamination at school sites revealed dozens of incidences where lead levels soared far beyond the federal minimum. This includes a school in East Oakland, where an on-site childcare center had 256 ppb of lead in its water, and a Daly City elementary school water fountain with 1,900 ppb of lead, the organization said.
If approved, the new bill would leave it up to the Department of Social Services and the Water Resources Control Board to decide what water lead level is acceptable at childcare centers, Little said.
To help cash-strapped centers afford the lead testing and mitigation efforts, several lawmakers are seeking the inclusion of $10 million in next fiscal year’s budget.
Sara Hicks-Kilday, director of the San Francisco Child Care Providers’ Association, said that kind of financial assistance is key to making these new regulations feasible. Providers are already struggling with low wages and a lack of government investment in early childcare, she said. They shouldn’t have to shoulder the financial burden of additional regulations, she added.
“I think watching for lead is important,” Hicks-Kilday said. “The difficulty is we put too little money into our childcare system, so what I would want to know is, are there funds attached to help providers in avoiding the lead, rather than putting the cost on the providers?”
Rep. Holden agreed funding for providers impacted by the legislation is important.
“There’s a recognition that there’s a fiscal impact to the operators …We want to make sure to the extent possible we can mitigate that cost,” he said. “I think we’re in good shape in terms of support and momentum behind the bill, and I think it’s the righteous thing to do.”