1 in 4 California child care centers found to have alarming levels of lead in drinking water, putting babies and children at risk

One location rivaled lead levels in Flint, Mich., at 11,300 parts per billion


SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Results of lead tests released today by California reveal that nearly 1,700 licensed child care centers across the state have exceeded the amount of allowable lead in drinking water given daily to preschool-age children and infants. This number will likely grow as more test results are disclosed.

The results show that California’s babies, toddlers and young children may have been drinking very high levels of lead contaminated water for decades. (See Table 1)

Table 1. Lead levels in drinking water found above state limits of almost 1,700 licensed child care centers


Lead (parts per billion)

Above action limit

Number of sites

Child care sites with at least one tap at or above
















Total number of sites tested (out of 14,495 centers)



Source: California Department of Social Services

The tests were conducted in compliance with Assembly Bill 2370, authored by Assemblymember Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) and sponsored by the Environmental Working Group. The law requires licensed child care centers to test their tap water for lead contamination and centers must lower lead levels that exceed a threshold. Holden has been a champion on the issue, authoring new laws to reduce lead in drinking water. 

The highest levels of lead, at 11,300 parts per billion, or ppb, were detected at the La Petite Academy, in San Diego. These levels were 2,200 times the amount of lead that California allows in child care center drinking water. The levels are also comparable to some of the highest amounts of lead detected in Flint, Mich.

Alarming levels of lead were found at other sites around the state. (See Table 2)

Table 2. Lead at levels above 500 ppb was found at 13 facilities serving drinking water to kids 




Result (parts per billion)

Sample date

San Diego

San Diego

La Petite Academy Incorporated



Los Angeles

La Puente

Van Wig Head Start/State Preschool



Los Angeles

Baldwin Park

Happy Campers Children Center



San Francisco

San Francisco

Abc Pre-School



Contra Costa


St. Catherine Of Siena Preschool





Senaida Garcia Child Development Center



San Bernardino


Wee Care Learning Center





Blessed Sacrament Children's Learning Center





Merryhill School – Calvine





Everbrook Academy



Santa Clara

San Jose

Kidango Linda Vista



San Diego

Chula Vista

Eastlake Community Church Preschool



San Mateo

San Mateo

Bunker Hill Parents Participation Nursery School



Source: California Department of Social Services

“Despite all the work we’ve done to try to protect kids from the debilitating impacts of lead exposure through their drinking water and elsewhere, test results released today show we have failed to prevent harm to the most vulnerable Californians,” said Susan Little, EWG’s senior advocate for California government affairs.

“Parents and decision-makers alike need to understand that the water our children drink in California can contain high levels of lead. Young people in our state are being put in dire risk,” said Little.

Lead is a neurotoxin that can permanently damage young children’s nervous systems. Even small amounts of lead can lower a child’s intelligence, cause behavior and learning difficulties, slow growth, and harm hearing. Studies indicate that lead’s harm cannot be reversed.

Because of lead’s neurotoxicity and potential to cause lifelong harm, the American Academy of Pediatrics, or AAP, recommends that lead in water not exceed 1 ppb. 

California law sets a limit of 5 ppb in drinking water in child care centers, though the AAP and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both confirm there is no safe level of lead in drinking water. 

Nationwide, the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water is zero, but federal regulations set the action level at 15 ppb. This action level is not a health standard but an indicator of lead contamination in a drinking water system.

“Today’s findings are deeply concerning, as children’s small bodies make them especially susceptible to the most harmful impacts of lead exposure,” said Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EWG. “Children absorb half the lead they ingest, and malnourished children absorb it faster. 

“The health hazards for children in child care facilities drinking lead throughout the day, and for infants drinking formula mixed with contaminated water, are grave. Even at low levels, lead exposure in children is linked to developmental delays, damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, and impaired blood cell function,” added Stoiber.

Limited lead testing

According to a 2018 report from the Environmental Defense Fund, only 11 states and two cities require licensed child care facilities to test their drinking water for lead. More than 4 million American children spend at least part of the day at child care centers

Although California requires licensed child care centers to test their drinking water for lead, licensed family child care homes, which number over 20,000, do not have to test their water for lead, and K-12 schools have conducted only limited testing.

In March, the Biden administration’s Office of Early Childhood Development wrote to every U.S. governor urging them to use funding from the American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to test for and clean up lead in child care and school drinking water. 

The EPA says as much as one-fifth of a child’s exposure to lead comes from drinking water. The agency also estimates that up to 60 percent of infants’ lead exposure can come from the water used to mix formula.

This year, Holden also authored Assembly Bill 249, which would require K-12 schools to test their water for lead. The bill, cosponsored by EWG and Children Now, is currently in the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee and faces fierce backlash from water utilities and school administrators.

California lawmakers must take immediate action to address this public health threat and to protect children from the dangers of lead exposure. Many child care centers have yet to test their water for lead, and family child care homes and schools face no immediate testing requirement.

If you suspect your child has been exposed to high levels of lead, seek medical attention immediately. Common symptoms of lead poisoning in children include stomach pain, headaches, loss of appetite, fatigue, irritability and difficulty concentrating.

“All children deserve access to clean, safe drinking water,” said Little.

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The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action 

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