High levels of lead have been discovered in drinking water from refrigerated fountains commonly found in offices and some schools, a report by the Centers for Disease Control has found.
The lead levels, which can impair mental functions in children and result in progressive kidney disease in adults, have been found as high as 40 times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposed safe level of 20 parts per billion. The current standard is 50 ppb.
"Virtually all electric drinking water fountains in schools appear to have sizable elevations of lead in their water. . . ," a draft of the CDC report said. It added, "Drinking water lead levels were very high from many brands of water coolers, including a number of those from five major manufacturers."
Lead appears to leach into the water when it is held in the lead-lined tanks of some fountains, or from coming into contact with lead-based solder.
The CDC's draft assessment was based on 159 samples of drinking water drawn from fountains in federal buildings in Washington. The actual sampling was conducted by an unnamed federal agency and reported to the EPA.
Although none of the drinking fountains tested were in schools, Jeanne Brisken of the EPA's Office of Drinking Water said, "There is no reason to believe that the water fountains in schools are any different than the water fountains that were tested here." However, she cautioned that she did not know the age of the fountains tested or which manufacturers may no longer make such fountains.
Two manufacturers contacted by The Times said they do not allow lead to come into contact with water in their products.
In addition, one of the report's authors, Paul Mushak, an environmental consultant to the EPA and U.S. Public Health Service, said Wednesday that he had no idea how widely used refrigerated fountains are in the nation's schools or whether the ones that are used are more recently manufactured.
Bill Rivera, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said Wednesday that virtually none of the district's 818 schools had electric drinking fountains in areas used by students, although he said there are some in faculty lounges and cafeterias.
The CDC report, prepared at the request of Congress, was expected to spur efforts urging manufacturers to halt the production and sale of such fountains.
"Electric drinking water coolers across the country may be poisoning the water they distribute with lead," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) in a statement prepared for a hearing today by his House health and environment subcommittee.
The CDC report said that lead in drinking water poses three to five times the risk of lead found in food because it is more easily absorbed by the body.
Adults absorb 10% to 15% of lead in food, but 35% to 50% of lead found in water. Children absorb lead even more readily--as much as 50% of the lead found in food and perhaps even higher percentages when the lead is contained in water, the CDC report said.
Forty samples involved the testing of the initial stream of water when the fountain was first turned on. In those samples, lead levels were as high as 570 ppb and had an average lead concentration of 125 ppb. Another 119 water samples were taken after running the fountains for one to two minutes. Lead concentrations in those samples were as high as 830 ppb, with an average of 64 ppb.
Mushak said the lead contamination threat could well be limited to older schools in the inner city.
The CDC said lead-lined school water coolers are "a hazardous exposure source for young children" because during weekends and vacations, the water stands in the fountain holding tanks for long periods, allowing more lead to leach into the water.
The danger of lead has long been recognized. It is estimated that 42 million people in the United States may drink water tainted with concentrations of lead that exceed 20 ppb. Originally, the threat was believed to be confined mostly to workers in lead industries, and to children who ate chips of lead-based paint. But lead concentrations have been found in the air and those concentrations dropped dramatically as leaded gasoline began to be phased out.