Lead water testing this spring in the San Diego Unified School District was a very public process. The district told parents and students, invited the media to broadcast initial testing and posted results on its website.
But, before that public process began, the district wanted to see where it stood. So, it conducted some preliminary water quality sampling, finding dangerous levels of lead contamination in at least one elementary school.
The district did not tell parents.
At Euclid Elementary in Mid-City, tests found lead in the water in September 2016, ranging from none to 38 parts per billion to 240 parts per billion, which is 15 times higher than the amount considered alarming by state and federal regulators.
A district spokesman said the district believes students were never at any risk from the tainted water. The highest levels of lead were discovered in an abandoned classroom sink at Euclid Elementary that was never used for drinking water.
“We did some spot sampling at a couple schools throughout the district, at some of our older schools, just to gather some preliminary data,” said Samir Naji, a school district spokesman. “It was basically ‘Let’s just see what we get.’”
NBC 7 Investigates found the district did not notify the public and it remains unclear whether state and federal regulators were notified when drinking water samples tested with levels of lead ranging from 3 to 15 times above acceptable limits set by the state.
Through the California Public Records Act, NBC 7 Investigates obtained lab reports, showing lead-contaminated water at Euclid Elementary School; Sunset View; and slightly elevated levels of lead at Birney Elementary and an unidentified school labeled only as “fountain samples.”
Here are the documents provided by the San Diego Unified School District under the California Public Records Act:
In February, officials discovered elevated levels of lead at two Southcrest schools located on the same campus on Newton Avenue prompting district officials to accelerate and expand plans to test all schools, a spokesman said at the time.
In April, the San Diego Unified School District publicly began lead water testing at all its schools under a new state program.
Touting itself as a trailblazer, the second largest district in the state invited the media to Horton Elementary to document and broadcast the initiation of its lead water testing program conducted by its water-supplier, the City of San Diego. The district began publishing the results on its website.
The public tests found 96 percent of schools were lead-free and only four schools had levels of lead that required the district take action to fix fixtures or plumbing.
At the conclusion of the testing, the district held a news conference announcing it was pleased with the results
But the records obtained by NBC7 Investigates show at least seven months prior, the district was quietly sampling schools for lead in water without notifying parents or state or federal regulators when results came back at higher than acceptable levels set by the state.
One lab report shows results for a generically labeled “fountain samples” and the district spokesman did not immediately know which school was tested.
Another sample taken from a Euclid Elementary sink in what the district says was a classroom used only to store furniture showed lead at 240 parts per billion. Water experts say when water sits stagnant; it is more likely to become contaminated with lead, especially from older fixtures.
That Euclid sink was taken out of service and helped district officials develop a testing protocol for the public lead water testing program they launched about seven months later, Naji said.
“The classroom was abandoned,” Naji said. “They took a sample there. It was elevated and even though that classroom was not in use, they investigated the classrooms around it and took some additional sampling around the school and there was no indication of a water contamination issue.”
Naji said no parents were notified and the results were not posted online because the district was sure no students were at risk.
Maria Jimenez, who lives across the street from the school and has a niece who attends Euclid, thinks the district made the wrong call.
“I think parents should have been very alerted to that because it’s something that your daughter or son is drinking and therefore I think you should be concerned about it,” she said.
During the city’s round of public testing this spring, four samples found no detectable levels of lead at Euclid and one sample found just barely above a detectable amount – not high enough to trigger any notification or remediation requirements.
“All of this is being done to protect kids and fortunately in this situation, there were no kids at risk and that’s been reconfirmed by the city sampling,” Naji said.
At Sunset View Elementary in Point Loma, records show the district found 15 parts of lead per billion parts water in one preliminary sample taken from the school.
That level is right on the edge of what is considered an acceptable level to have in drinking water, but in this case, it was discovered coming from a piece of outside equipment known as a backflow preventer. Naji said it was not reaching the drinking sources of sinks, faucets, and fountains at the 480-student school.
In that case, the district notified one parent who expressed a particular interest and concern about lead, he said.
At Birney Elementary, the district’s preliminary testing in September 2016 found lead at 8 parts per billion, which is under the threshold that requires action. Later public testing found higher levels of lead in the water, and the school is now on bottled water as district officials work to address the problem.
NBC 7 Investigates requested and is awaiting further records related to the district’s prior testing, including communications with an environmental remediation firm, Forensics Analytical Consulting Services, about what type of clean-up efforts may have gone into removing or flushing lead from school water sources.
When "Star," a service dog refused to drink blue-tinged school water at the Emerson-Bandini campus in Southcrest in February, the firm recommended the district do extensive further testing, gather data on other cases of nausea and vomiting at nearby campuses, and submit formal complaints to the San Diego County Public Water Utility and San Diego Department of Public Health. The school district did not follow all the recommendations.
NBC 7 Investigates was also seeking district emails related to water quality at San Diego schools just before the public water sampling began in April. A spokesperson with the school district said they are still working to locate those emails.