Getting the Lead Out

Graduate student Chase Benson shows Life Academy students how to measure lead levels.

In an environmental science lab at SF State sits a piece of equipment called an atomic emissions spectrometer, not too different from the instruments used by astronomers to study distant stars. This one, though, is being used to study something a lot closer: dust from a window-sill in East Oakland. That work is part of a collaboration between students at SF State and the Life Academy of Health and Bioscience high school to look for elevated levels of lead in soil, water, paint and dust in the local community.

“We’ve got students at both the high school and university level doing things that, frankly, regulatory agencies should be doing,” says Professor of Analytical Chemistry Pete Palmer, who helped manage the project.

The effort comes at a time of increasing awareness — nationally and in the East Bay, in particular — of the dangers of lead exposure. News reports over the past year have revealed elevated lead levels in East Oakland children, and the Oakland Unified School District has been performing tests to look for lead in the tap water of local schools, as well.

To learn more about the problem in their neighborhood, Life Academy students collected samples throughout East Oakland houses, apartments, schools and playgrounds and shipped the samples to SF State labs for students to analyze last spring. The team found lead levels surpassing regulatory limits in a number of locations. Last semester, they went back to take a closer look at the hot spots they found, and to test new locations, too. “We want to focus in and find out what the extent of the problem really is,” says Palmer.

The students were eager to connect their science education with their own communities. “I think our students in general have a community-oriented stance,” says Angelica Corral, who teaches biology and environmental science at Life Academy. “Not just through my class. They’re interested in understanding other issues like police brutality and racism.” And while investigating lead levels in their neighborhood, they also learned about the connection between environmental issues and social justice from SF State Professor of Biology and Lead Principal Investigator of SF BUILD Leticia Márquez-Magaña. SF BUILD also provided funding for the project.