Reef-Sunset Unified School District Superintendent David East is worried about water. Not because of the drought – record rains this past winter ended five years of dry times. Rather, East, whose district encompasses the small towns of Avenal and Kettleman City on the San Joaquin Valley’s west side, is worried about the safety of the water that the 2,700 students in his school district are being given to drink.
That’s because arsenic levels in the drinking water at some schools in the San Joaquin Valley exceed the maximum federal safety levels by as much as three times. And arsenic is not the only threat to schoolchildren. High levels of pesticides, nitrate, bacteria and naturally occurring uranium also contaminate groundwater in many rural parts of the state.
In East’s district, his Kettleman City school exceeds the safe level of arsenic. And for schools in Avenal, the problem is high levels of trihalomethanes, a disinfectant byproduct that forms when chlorine that is used to treat the water reacts with organic matter in the water. Although naturally occurring, arsenic can be dangerous, especially to children. According to the National Institutes of Health, arsenic is a known carcinogen and exposure to arsenic as a child is associated with the higher risk of later developing cancer. And trihalomethanes may also be carcinogenic, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.