A Buena Vista teacher takes notes at his laptop about the ongoing lead testing discussion in the auditorium.
Sixth-grade teacher Todd Albert takes copious notes during a Buena Vista Horace Mann community meeting about upcoming lead testing. A panel consisting of SF Health officer Susan Philip, BayPLS founder Salu Ribiero, and the Latino Task Force. Photo by Annika Hom. Jan. 20, 2023.

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The night before the school district was scheduled to commence testing Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 students for lead exposure, city officials appeared to pre-emptively sidestep responsibility. 

On Thursday night, Buena Vista parents and teachers gathered in the school’s auditorium and on Zoom to learn how to access free lead testing offered on Friday and Saturday this week and next. The school district approved free testing after Buena Vista teachers, the Latino Task Force and Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s office advocated for it. 

The decision came after lead was found in the school’s water and garden in December, prompting the forthcoming testing regimen and Thursday night’s meeting. But, throughout the hourlong gathering, city officials appeared to dance around the subject by repeatedly stating that any positive lead tests may have been caused by external environmental factors that have nothing to do with Buena Vista Horace Mann.

Dr. Susan Philip, the city’s health officer and a director of disease prevention at the Department of Public Health, said a result that “triggers reporting [to the state]” — i.e. a higher than normal amount of lead — “doesn’t exactly tell us, where did that child potentially get exposed to lead?” She continued, “Are we doing everything we can to remove any possible source in that child’s life?”

Throughout the community meeting, Philip repeatedly suggested that students may have been exposed to lead at “home,” a word she used at least seven times. At the onset, Philip listed multiple possible sources of lead exposure before once mentioning the lead found in the water or garden at Buena Vista. 

“The home is the place where most exposure can occur, because that’s where children spend most of their time,” Philip said. 

This is certainly true. Lead, just like asbestos exposure, can come from a variety of environmental factors: Lead is found in pipes, gasoline, paint. Any San Francisco building built before 1979 presents potential threats, thanks to the ubiquity of lead paint in construction, making the home a major potential exposure source. Generally, risk occurs after months or years of exposure. 

Overexposure may “affect a child’s brain and nervous system, and contribute to problems in learning and behavior,” according to San Francisco’s Department of Public Health. 

Health outcomes also depend on lead levels, Philip explained. Philip and the phlebotomists who will administer the tests did not immediately define what an unacceptable lead level was, calling lead tests “complicated” without “clear answer[s] in most cases.” 

The statement was confusing, because multiple medical institutions offer explicit definitions of “abnormal” or elevated lead levels that require further monitoring. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is conservative, stating that more than 3.5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood is unsafe. The California Department of Public Health defines it as above 4.5 micrograms, and the University of California, San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital defines it as above 5.  

When pressed by this reporter to explain testing complications, Philip said, “It’s a longer conversation … to make sure that there’s no ongoing exposure, primarily in the home. It could be in other areas as well.” Low levels of lead may require follow-up months later and more investigation, she said. 

The school district’s head of facilities, Dawn Kamalanathan, agreed. She said the district’s responsibility is to remediate exposure, which it has done, and doctors should determine the “full range” of possible sources. 

The Public Utilities Commission is testing schools’ water for lead now, she added, but the district is in discussions about future testing. Potential state legislation eyed for 2024 would require a new round of lead testing, Kamalanathan said, and “it would not [be] the most impactful use of resources to test everyone, and then have to do it again in 2024.”  

Meanwhile, parents and teachers in the auditorium expressed frustration and fear. 

Todd Albert, a sixth-grade teacher, stood up to the microphone and introduced himself. “Thank you all for being here,” Albert said. “I have, unfortunately, apparently been drinking lead water for the past seven years, daily.”

Testing is on Friday, Jan. 20, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday, Jan. 21, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 24th and Capp streets. Testing will take place again the following weekend. Buena Vista teachers, students, families and alumni are welcome. Those without primary care doctors will be linked to the Mission Neighborhood Health Center.  

Though teachers requested on-site lead testing for all, the district opted for 24th and Capp: “The L[atino Task Force] testing site is existing, and doesn’t require new mobilization, and the many activities ongoing at BVHM could make testing difficult to navigate and access,” stated Laura Dudnick, spokesperson for the school district, in an email to Mission Local. 

However, Salu Ribeiro, founder of BayPLS, which will be conducting the tests, said his team would test teachers on-site at the school. Principal Claudia DeLarios Morán, present in the audience Thursday, estimated about 60 staff members would test. 

Bernice Casey asked if leaking lead-contaminated water presented a risk to students, referring to a recent incident; her son is a student, and her son just graduated. 

“Very young children tend to put more things into their mouths. So, for children who are elementary school age in a classroom, even if the water that’s surrounding them has lead in it, if they’re not ingesting it, which most children would not, they are safe from that lead source,” Philip said. “But again, our homes — all old buildings — are sources.”

What are the cumulative effects of drinking water over years on a regular basis, “especially for students that are more of a tender age  — five, six, seven-year-olds drinking a lot of water at about that level of lead?” DeLarios Morán asked. 

Health outcomes vary, though no level of lead is good, Philip said. Prevention is important, and the school district responded correctly by shutting off water fixtures with higher than acceptable lead levels and fencing off the garden, where high levels of arsenic and lead were found two feet below ground. 

That did not appease parents, who are frustrated from years of neglect. Throughout the meeting, they scoffed at officials’ remarks, or could be heard saying “blah blah blah” quietly.  

“The school district doesn’t care about the school,” Casey said at the mic. 

“I’m shaking right now,” José Manriquez, a parent and ‘94 Buena Vista alum, complained. “I mean, when does it change?” Parents in the auditorium thumped the tables in assent. 

When the meeting concluded, Maria Nuñez, who has two students at Buena Vista, grumbled in Spanish as she pushed her chair back. “All the time, nothing. We can’t trust them.” 

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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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  1. It is true that many older housing units have lead paint and they might be ONE source of exposure to lead. That does not mean BVHM does not also have lead paint that might be an additional source of exposure.

    If leave my house in the morning and am exposed to Coronavirus when I stop and say hello to my neighbor and when I am riding the bus to wherever I might be going and in the elevator when I get to wherever that is and then by several people in line at the pizza place I go to for lunch and so on, would DPH only “blame” my neighbor or would someone who works for a public agency where there are lots of MPHs and MDs and PhDs grasp that I was exposed several/multiple times?

    SFDPH in particular should understand that but they’re finding it much easier to blame the families. It’s public health equivalent of Ann Hsu blaming families for “student outcomes” (to use the current buzzword).

  2. What happens if after testing a child has dangerously high levels of lead? What medications are available? Who pays? Does a high test of a child trigger an investigation into home? Lead levels in California have been shown to dangerously high for at least the last 30 years, particularly (obviously) in low income communities, so obviously there are other sources, probably many other. Who is responsible for remediation? The property owner? The parents (even if they are renters)? The City? The State? Philip sounds like a lawyer, defending the City, not a health official promoting the health of children.