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Why this matters

Lead exposure is especially harmful to children, who can absorb more lead than adults and have brains and nervous systems that are more sensitive to the damaging — and sometimes irreversible — effects.

Despite a California law requiring expanded lead testing for the first time at child care centers, thousands of facilities remain untested, potentially putting the health of children across the state at risk.

More than 7,800 facilities — 54% of California’s child care centers — have yet to test for lead and could be out of compliance, according to an inewsource analysis of the state data, including testing results released by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group

That includes nearly half of all larger child care providers in San Diego County — or 571 — and almost all — or 57 — in Imperial County.

Results from centers that have tested suggest children in facilities that haven’t could be unknowingly exposed, says Susan Little, a senior advocate for California government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. The organization has sponsored state legislation on the issue.

A quarter of facilities that have conducted the testing so far have reported lead levels higher than the state’s limit of 5 parts per billion, with some of the highest contamination found at sites in San Diego and Chula Vista. Nearly 130 facilities in San Diego and Imperial counties exceeded the allowable amount.

The testing results are “just the tip of the iceberg,” Little said.

Also unknown is the possible contamination at more than 28,000 facilities across the state known as family child care homes, which aren’t required to test and can go unmonitored for lead levels entirely. 

Has your child been exposed to lead? Testing is available

All pediatricians and doctors treating children have the ability to order a lead test. Parents need to schedule an appointment and will be provided a questionnaire to determine if testing is needed. Here are some resources in San Diego and Imperial counties.

San Diego County:

La Maestra Community Health Center, 4185 Fairmount Ave., San Diego, CA 92105. Contact: 619-280-4213

Scripps Clinic, 7565 Mission Valley Rd. #200, San Diego, CA 92108. Contact: 619-245-2350

Imperial County:

El Centro Regional Medical Center, 1415 Ross Ave., El Centro, CA 92243. Contact: 760-482-5000

Pioneers Memorial Hospital, 207 W Legion Rd., Brawley, CA 92227, 760-351-3333

Under a 2018 law, child care centers had until Jan. 1 of this year to test their drinking water for lead contamination and submit results to a state-approved laboratory.

Assemblymember Chris Holden, a Pasadena Democrat, introduced the bill and said at the time that increasing testing was “one of the single biggest steps” to preventing lead poisoning, particularly among the state’s high-risk children.

Facilities that failed to meet the deadline are subject to citations from the state Department of Social Services and could ultimately have their license suspended, or even revoked, if they don’t comply.

A DSS spokesperson said it “works closely” with facilities to make them aware of the testing requirements. But the agency would not say whether any child care providers have faced consequences for not yet following the law, information inewsource is seeking through a pending records request. 

inewsource also requested from DSS a list of facilities that have yet to comply with required testing — but more than a month later, the agency hasn’t provided that information. 

To get a sense of how many facilities may not have tested, inewsource compared a list of child care centers in California to a DSS list of facilities that have tested. Some 7,800 facilities were not found not on the state’s list of those that tested for lead in drinking water.  

Those centers likely include some that are exempt from state law, as only those built before 2010 or with outlets used for drinking water or food preparation are required to comply with the testing. 

Some providers may have already tested their water but labs were still processing results by the deadline, Little said. Some may have also conducted testing after the deadline passed.

More than 50 child care centers in San Diego and Imperial counties that had yet to test did not respond to inquiries from inewsource, with the exception of two facilities that claimed to have completed testing but did not provide additional details when asked.

Rancho Peñasquitos, Chula Vista topped San Diego’s lead levels

Despite state law setting a limit, health agencies have confirmed there is no safe level of lead in drinking water. 

A naturally occurring metal found in a wide range of products including gasoline, paint and plumbing pipes, lead is especially harmful to children who can absorb more than adults and have brains and nervous systems that are more sensitive to its damaging effects.

One pediatric study analyzing blood samples found that children from low-income families are more likely to be exposed to elevated levels of lead than higher-income families. Children living in Black and Hispanic and Latino communities in particular have higher chances of testing for detectable lead levels in their blood, according to the study.

The highest lead levels in the state were found at La Petite Academy on Carmel Mountain Road: 11,300 parts per billion — 2,200 times the state’s allowable level. 

Three sinks and two drinking faucets in the facility, which is licensed to care for 100 children, tested above the 5-parts-per-billion limit, according to an October report. One of the faucets had been used to fill filtered water pitchers that children used. 

The facility director told a state inspector at the time that the sink faucets were replaced and a “do not use” sign would be posted until they were re-tested and under allowable levels, according to the report.

La Petite Academy did not respond to a request for comment, and staff at the Carmel Mountain location in Rancho Peñasquitos instructed an inewsource reporter off its premises last month. However, a spokesperson for the organization told the Los Angeles Times that the water fountains flagged for lead had not been used since before the COVID-19 pandemic and were quickly removed after testing. 

Rancho Bernardo resident Lana Al-Omar said she was shocked to learn the facility, which her 4-year-old daughter attends, yielded the state’s highest levels. Al-Omar has continued to drop off her daughter at La Petite, but monitors her daughter’s health via regular pediatric appointments. 

Any facility having elevated levels of lead should be penalized with higher fines as a way to ensure compliance, she said.

“I think as a parent, I can just make sure that wherever I take her in terms of daycare, that the facility is being held accountable,” Al-Omar said after picking up her daughter one weekday afternoon. “I know that the facility should be doing their part, but I also do think that parents should be aware of this issue.”

High lead levels were also found in Chula Vista, where the Eastlake Community Church Preschool reported results showing 570 parts per billion — third-highest in the county and 13th-highest in the state.

In Imperial County, the Imperial Valley College Developmental Preschool reported 27 parts per billion. That’s the highest amount of lead of the six child care centers in that county to report results. 

A sink in an employee break room and another inside a kid’s restroom at the preschool, which is licensed to care for 70 children, tested above state limits, according to a December report. The college’s second facility, an infant center licensed to care for 24 children, also had a drinking fountain that tested at 8.6 parts per billion. 

Spokesperson Elizabeth Espinoza told inewsource the campus immediately prohibited use of the water outlets after they tested for high levels. Officials used COVID relief funds to help pay for the $24,000 remediation, including costs of labor and parts, and had each outlet with high levels of lead replaced and re-sampled by the end of January.

A problem that needs ‘a community solution’

Water does not typically come out of treatment plants with lead. Instead, it picks up lead as it travels through pipes in the drinking water system. Older neighborhoods tend to have more lead pipes. 

Dr. Justin Seltzer, emergency physician and medical toxicologist at UC San Diego Health, said through water, along with industrial contamination and paint chips, lead exposure is common.

Exposure vs. poisoning: What’s the difference?

Lead exposure is common and can happen through inhalation or ingestion. Kids can also be exposed to lead from a variety of sources such as drinking water that runs through old lead pipes, contamination of air, food and water and lead paint. Even low level lead exposure can still have toxic effects on children in the long run, namely cognitive and behavioral issues that may not be reversible. 

Lead poisoning is associated with exposure to  a large amount of lead. This results in more severe symptoms such as abdominal pain, vomiting and seizures. However, lead poisoning is uncommon among children in California due to routine screening measures and testing.

But much less common — and more serious — is lead poisoning, he said, which may require the child to be treated with medication and possibly hospitalized. Symptoms of lead poisoning can include weight loss, abdominal pain and seizures.

Seltzer said that although long-term lead exposure is associated with behavioral and cognitive abnormalities, the minimum amount of lead that could cause these issues is unknown. However, the more an individual is exposed to lead the higher the risk is for these issues, he said.

These behavioral and cognitive changes are persistent over the long term and are typically not reversible with medication that’s currently available. 

“Say I gave them a medication that would remove the lead from their body, it wouldn’t necessarily result in those things disappearing,” he said.

Seltzer believes that the current lead testing regulations were a success because it revealed that child care centers, which have limited control over water infrastructure, are also victims of this systemic issue.

“It’s a community problem and requires a community solution,” he said.

A new state bill, again led by Holden, would require community water systems to test potable water outlets at older school sites it serves before 2027. A hearing has been set for the bill on July 12.

“We must protect our most vulnerable from the irreversible health effects caused by lead,” Holden told inewsource in a written statement.

But the bill is facing opposition, including from water agencies who claim the bill is “premature” and may conflict with ongoing similar efforts by the Biden Administration to strengthen requirements.

Officials from the Sweetwater and San Diego County Water authorities say the local agencies have not taken an official position on the bill. The San Diego Unified School District also stated that it had not taken a position.

inewsource investigative data coordinator Jill Castellano contributed to this report.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Andrea Figueroa Briseño is an investigative reporter at inewsource and a corps member for Report For America, a national service program that tasks journalists to report on undercovered communities and issues. She covers education and focuses her reporting on Latino students and families who are part...

Crystal Niebla joined inewsource in June 2022 as an investigative reporter focused on infrastructure and government accountability in the San Diego region. Her position is partly funded by Report for America, a national program that supports local journalists. At the Long Beach Post, Niebla served...