Bay Area students work together to study Oakland lead levels

SF State biology students are teaming up with high school students in East Oakland to test the amounts of lead in their community using samples of dust, paint, water and hair.

In a recent Reuters report, nearly 3,000 communities’ nationwide lead samples were double those of Flint, Michigan. Just last year, Flint was highly discussed in the news for high lead levels in its drinking water as a result of old pipes.

5 percent of children screened in Flint had high levels of lead in their blood. In East Oakland, the percentage is around 7 percent of children, according to the Reuters report.

Following the report, SF State Professor Pete Palmer decided he wanted to direct his Environmental Analysis class to focus on the lead levels in East Oakland by working with an AP Environmental Studies class from Life Academy High School.

Typically, the class focuses on individual projects. This semester, the students have teamed up to work on this project by splitting up into groups either testing water, dust, paint or hair samples that high school students collected around their community.

“Are we a certified lab? No,” Palmer said. “But we are doing the same sorts of things certified labs do.”

According to Palmer, some results have already indicated that residents in East Oakland are being exposed to lead levels above the EPA limit.

Teaming up with high school students in the community helped provide the student researchers a broader scope of samples that only locals would know where to find, such as old buildings and old playgrounds.

The standard EPA limit for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion. Some of the lead levels found in water in East Oakland exceed the EPA limits. For example, a water sample collected at a Kaiser Hospital was tested at over 200 parts per billion.

Niko Yeun, 24, graduating with a degree in biochemistry with a focus in environmental analysis, tested the water samples from Kaiser. In Yeun’s research, 12 out of the 28 samples had elevated lead levels that were higher than the EPA limit.

“It’s hard to say what is causing the (contamination) but the important part is knowing that it is above the (EPA) limit so that action can be taken,” Yeun said. “This data is alarming.”

To test all of the different scenarios, the high school students were told to collect hot and cold water from the same pipes, as well as to collect what is called “the first draw,” which is the first water drawn for the day. Cold and hot water react differently to lead, where hot water absorbs lead from the pipes easier. The first draw is used to see if the water absorbs lead by sitting over periods of time in pipes.

Lead poisoning is especially dangerous for unborn babies and young children because their developing bodies can absorb and retain lead easily. Symptoms of lead poisoning include headaches, stomach pain, anemia, and behavioral problems, and can affect the development of the brain. Most of the time symptoms go unnoticed or never show.

In East Oakland, paint samples show lead levels in paint may be more dangerous than high lead levels in water. The East Bay Express reported after the initial Reuter’s report that most of the buildings in Oakland were built before 1978, when lead paint was banned. Lead paint is the most difficult to clean up and when it chips or flakes it can contaminate the soil and eventually breakdown and potentially contaminate water or become airborne as dust.

The research from the environmental analysis class is still being processed. Whether or not the outcomes will be presented will be determined once all the findings are completed.

 

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