students collecting soil at united for success academy
Sixth grade students at United for Success Academy collect soil outside of their school. Credit: Courtesy Frontline Catalysts

Sixth-graders at a Fruitvale middle school are raising the alarm over elevated lead levels at their school and in their neighborhoods.

Students at United for Success Academy on 35th Avenue worked during the school year with the East Bay Academy for Young Scientists and Frontline Catalysts, an environmental justice organization that launched last year, to test the soil on their campus, at the nearby Peralta Hacienda Historical Park, and at their own homes. 

What they discovered was staggering: lead levels of up to 997 parts per million (ppm) in the soil on their campus, up to 800 ppm at Peralta Hacienda Historical Park, and 728 ppm million at their homes. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends a limit of 400 ppm in areas where children play, like yards, playgrounds, and schools, and up to 1,200 ppm in other areas. Lead poisoning in children has been found to impact learning, and severe exposure can cause seizures or death.

Since learning the results of their soil testing, the students have been on a campaign to do something about it. They’ve called on public officials to address the problem, drafted a “Fruitvale Bill of Rights,” and organized a town hall to educate their neighbors about the dangers of lead poisoning.

“We want to help the community and we’re going step by step to get to the people in power so they can listen to our voices,” said Sheila Matias, a sixth-grade student at United for Success Academy. “Because it’s affecting the children, and what’s going to be helpful for us to change the world in the future are the children.”

It’s not the first time Oakland students have pressured the city to act on environmental concerns. Last year, middle schoolers at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience wrote letters to the City Council about the diesel truck ban on Interstate 580, which forces truck drivers traveling through Oakland to use Interstate 880, creating pollution that disproportionately impacts residents in the East Oakland flatlands.

“What we want is to have the students discover things about themselves that they didn’t have in them, and build that confidence to know that this world belongs to them too,” said Candice Fukumoto, one of the sixth-grade humanities teachers at United for Success Academy. “How do we have this [lesson] go beyond our walls and into the streets of Oakland and beyond?”

Frontline Catalysts developed its climate justice leadership program last year as a pilot and is hoping to expand the program to other schools, said Nikki Dones, the group’s director of strategy and administration. The group’s curriculum, which focuses on environmental justice through an ethnic studies lens, was developed for sixth-grade English-language learners at United for Success Academy. During the course, students learned about Indigenous cultures and approaches to caring for the Earth, compared with Western cultures. As the group’s name suggests, Frontline Catalysts wants to empower young people to fight climate change and environmental harm in their communities.

“The youth are the ones who are going to bear the brunt of it all in the future,” Dones said. “The youth in frontline communities—the ones who are already living with decades of environmental pollution, high rates of COVID-19, high unemployment, and low education. We decided that those were the communities that we wanted to focus on, and those were the youth we wanted to help.”

Students came up with some of their own solutions, like putting down sod or fake grass over soil that contains lead, so that it’s more difficult for children to ingest it. The “Fruitvale Bill of Rights,” which the sixth-grade classes created with contributions from other students, lists the students’ demands: clean air, clean water, and clean play areas. In April, the students organized a community town hall where they presented their findings, talked to community members about where lead could be present, and handed out bags that families could fill with soil from their yard and bring back to the school for testing.

The “Fruitvale Bill of Rights” that students created adorns the wall of a hallway at United for Success Academy. Credit: Ashley McBride

After learning that younger children are at higher risk for health complications due to lead exposure, Sheila, the sixth-grader, encouraged her own family to have her 2-year-old sister tested and they discovered elevated lead levels in her blood. 

“It’s because of the soil in the backyard, where she plays. We didn’t know,” Sheila said. “But now that we know, we can do something about it.”

Lead exposure has gone down in Oakland, but there’s still much work to do

Fruitvale is a known lead hotspot, although gains have been made in recent years. Ten years ago, the Fruitvale zip code 94601 had the highest percentage of children under six with elevated blood lead levels in Alameda County, at 7.5%. In 2020, that percentage had dropped to 1.7%. The most common way that children in the area are exposed to lead is from remnants of lead paint, said Dr. Diane Halberg, a pediatrician and professor at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland. Lead paint was banned in 1978, but old homes that still have that paint can pose a hazard when the paint flakes off and falls to the ground. 

To mitigate exposure, residents can repaint their homes, but there are social and economic reasons why lead poisoning is more common in some Oakland communities like Fruitvale and West Oakland.

“In those neighborhoods, there’s a lot of old housing stock so the paint is still chipping off from when they were built, and those are neighborhoods where people are renting and there’s fear of conflict with landlords,” Halberg said. “When you do own your own home, can you afford to remediate it? If it was passed down through generations, can you afford that?”

Halberg works with families on Medi-Cal at the Claremont pediatric clinic, and tests children at 1 and 2 years old, when they’re crawling on the floor and putting things in their mouths, like paint chips. If a blood test reveals elevated lead levels, Halberg notifies the public health department, who will then reach out to the family to try to find the source of the lead. 

Because lead remediation efforts have been successful, public health agencies have lowered the acceptable blood lead levels over the past several decades, Halberg said. In 2012, the standard for lead poisoning was cut in half, and is 80% lower than the limit in the 80s. 

But Halberg says more can be done, and a recent lawsuit settlement that will give millions to Alameda County and Oakland to address remnants of lead paint gives her hope that more systemic change could be coming.

“We know where the neighborhoods are that have higher lead levels,” she said. “Let’s not wait for me to test the 1-year-old and find the lead and then call public health, but go into these neighborhoods and do more proactive exploration and say, ‘This is where we need to put the money.’”

Larry Brooks, the director of Alameda County Healthy Homes, said the county and city are still working through how exactly to spend the funds, which came from a lawsuit settlement with paint companies. Fourteen million of the $24 million total will go to Oakland, and $10 million will be for Alameda County to use elsewhere. 

Right now, the county mainly relies on reports from public health departments regarding lead poisoning in children  to locate the source of lead in homes. Alameda County Healthy Homes also has grants available to landlords to repaint their homes.

Brooks has his own suggestions for how organizations can take a more proactive approach to lead contamination, like establishing a rental inspection program that would include looking for lead hazards. Brooks also supports a bill introduced by state Sen. Bob Archuleta that would require those doing construction and renovation work to complete a training in lead-safe work practices. 

Hearing from those in affected communities is just as important to bringing changes, Brooks added.

“The young people’s ability to do this kind of research, to go and speak to community groups, to get out on social media and talk, is just incredible,” Brooks said. “Young people taking notice of what’s going on in their environment and speaking out is going to be the key, I think, to us really having an impact on lead poisoning prevention.”

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.