San Francisco schools are leaving children at risk

Callie Fausey is a sophomore media studies student.

An age-old and preventable hazard is currently putting our nation’s children at risk, and it resides within a somewhat surprising location: our public schools’ water fountains. However, it seems that the majority of the public is generally unaware of this problem, even here in San Francisco, where more than half of the schools in the city have found lead in their drinking water. 

Dangerously high levels of lead, a potent neurotoxin, have been found in water fixtures in public schools around the country, and San Francisco is no exception. There is no “safe” level of lead, but current federal regulations allow 15 times the amount of lead in our school’s drinking water than what is recommended by pediatricians. 

This by no means protects San Francisco’s children from lead toxicity if the levels remain above one part per billion, the standard recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. In fact, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) found lead in drinking water at over 50% of San Francisco schools, but due to outdated regulations, the majority of contaminated fixtures are still in service. 

This crisis is significant because lead toxicity can lead to lower IQs and has been linked to learning and behavioral disorders such as ADHD and anxiety. These consequences are tragically obvious in the case of Flint, Michigan’s children: the percentage of students who require special education has more than doubled since the water crisis began about six years ago, according to an article in the New York Times. Not only does this problem put San Francisco’s children at high risk of the dangerous effects of lead toxicity, but it also contributes to exacerbating social disparities already present within our community. 

In a tragic, yet unsurprising fashion, lower-income communities of color are most highly affected by this issue. Four of the six schools with the highest lead levels predominantly serve low-income communities of color. Therefore, this is not only an issue of public health but also one of social justice. 

USF students and faculty are committed to social justice; caring for others and advocating for the safety and health of our community is ingrained within our university’s values and mission. I am an after-school tutor for students aged four to 10 in the Fillmore, and I am sad to see their incredible potential poisoned by such a correctable problem. Becoming close to these students has made this issue personal to me. It is my job to do everything I can to help these students learn and overcome any obstacles that may stand in their way. I feel helpless that a basic necessity like clean drinking water isn’t being provided to them when the consequences could be so harmful to their growth and academic advancement.

We can fix this problem and protect San Francisco’s children from lead toxicity by replacing lead-bearing pipes and water fountains and installing certified lead filters in schools. Other California school districts, including San Diego Unified and Los Angeles Unified, have already taken action. These are affordable solutions, so it frustrates me that many California schools have ignored this problem and are leaving students at risk for lead poisoning. San Francisco could be one of the school districts leading the way in enacting these solutions, but SFUSD has yet to fully commit to getting the lead out. We are a city that boasts about being committed to social justice and fair treatment of our residents, but we are leaving our children behind.
However, it is important that for now, we advocate for stricter regulations on lead concentrations in our children’s drinking water and push our representatives and the SFUSD school board to adopt the one part per billion standard as recommended by The American Academy of Pediatrics.

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