NBC Los Angeles uncovers evidence that the Los Angeles Unified School District knew in recent years that the drinking water at numerous schools was tainted with high levels of lead.
April 2008 - Investigative reporter Joel Grover exposed unsafe amounts of lead in the water at some L.A. area schools that he tested. Almost a month ago, KNBC asked the school district for records of any testing it had done in recent years for lead in the water at schools.
Officials told KNBC they hadn't done much testing, and that the records Grover wanted didn't exist. But he kept pressing them. And now, they've finally handed over all these documents: a paper trail revealing a big lead problem at even more schools.
Buried away in the files at the L.A. Unified School District are test results that show the district analyzed drinking water at numerous schools starting in the late 1990s, and found dangerous amounts of lead, like at Woodlake Elementary in Woodland Hills. Records now show the district found high levels of lead in the water there eight years ago. But officials have been telling parents recently the problem was first discovered last fall.
"I don't trust anything they say," says Parent Vicki Murciano. "My child is instructed not to go near the water fountains."
Back in June of 2000, the district found levels of lead in three fountains at Woodlake that were far above the 15 parts per billion of lead that the EPA says is safe. One fountain had 80 parts per billion. It was only after more tests were done last year, when a level of 113 was found in a fountain, that the district began replacing the old lead pipes in the school--pipes that have been banned since the mid-1980s.
Joel Grover to Superintendent David Brewer: "Shouldn't the district have re-piped, or done something about this problem eight years ago?"
Brewer: "Yeah, it clearly should've been mitigated, Joel. I don't deny that."
Last week, KNBC reported the results of its investigation, when KNBC took samples from drinking fountains at 30 LAUSD elementary schools. Lab analysis found 30 percent of those schools had drinking fountains with unsafe amounts of lead.
The superintendent said KNBC's investigation was the first he'd learned of the lead problem.
"We thank you all for what you all have done in highlighting this problem to us," says Brewer.
But records KNBC obtained show the district found nine more schools, from the late 1990s to 2000, with unsafe amounts of lead in the water.
In 2000, tests found more than eight times the safe level of lead in water at San Gabriel Elementary in South Gate. In 1997 and 2000 at Van Gogh Elementary in Granada Hills, unsafe levels of lead were found in at least 10 fountains. And at middle schools like Mann in South LA, more dangerous fountains were identified.
Grover to Superintendent Brewer: "Are you concerned that a lot of children have been drinking unsafe water?"
Brewer: "I am very concerned. I have just ordered random sampling of all fountains in the district, in the schools."
Grover: "You have evidence from the late 90s that a lot of schools had serious lead problems. Shouldn't you have started this district-wide testing then?"
Brewer: "I've only been superintendent for 18 months. As of right now, we will have a proactive testing program."
Brewer said the district doesn't have the $300 million it would take to replace all the old lead pipes and fountains in hundreds of schools. But based on their upcoming testing, he says they'll fix the worst problems.
"Where there are egregious problems in the piping, we're going to replace those pipes," says Brewer.
Back at Woodlake, the word is spreading that the district knew about lead in the water eight years before it told parents.
"I am having my child blood tested," one parent says.
But some parents now say the district should be testing the kids at Woodlake, to see if any have lead poisoning.
"I think the district should be offering blood tests, paying for them," says another parent. "I think the district should be supplying clean drinking water."
As for those schools KNBC mentioned, where lead was found in the water, at some of them, the district has replaced some but not all of the old pipes. But even with the partial re-piping jobs, like at Van Gogh Elementary, high levels of lead have still been found in the water.