Experts Sound Off on Water-Safety Failures

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Experts warn that utilities across the country have failed to heed federal guidelines urging discontinuation of a practice that disguises high lead levels in water.
     The practice in question occurs during sampling of water under the Environmental Protection Agency’s lead and copper rule.
     Though common in years past, the EPA now warns against running the tap for several minutes before the pre-sampling, six-hour stagnation period.
     Flint’s lead-in-water crisis exposed the dangers of the practice, known as pre-flushing, but the current lead and copper rule does not prohibit the practice.
     Just this past January, the Washington-based advocacy group Parents for Non-Toxic Alternatives blasted Philadelphia for still advising customers pre-flush before collecting samples for testing.
     The group is among several water-safety advocates voicing concerns that utilities underestimate lead levels in drinking water. Practices these groups have touted for years are only now making their into EPA advisories.
     Guidelines the EPA issued in February, for example, now suggest using wide-mouthed sampling bottles to capture stronger flows more representative of how people use water in their homes. The guidelines also now recommend that water utilities stop instructing customers to remove the screens on faucet tips.
     But the sampling protocol is still deficient in other ways, medical ethnographer Yanna Lambrinidou said in an interview.
     The president of the nontoxic alternatives group, Lambrinidou says the lead and copper rule requires the taking of only one water sample after the six-hour stagnation period.
     Though that first sample catches only the water closest to the tap, Lambrinidou said researchers should be testing water that had prolonged contact with lead service lines – the water that people use to drink and cook with every day.
     Multiple samples collected 45 seconds after the first would capture water that sat in the lead service line during the stagnation period, which could contain higher lead levels.
     Even two samples might not be enough to capture peak lead levels, Lambrinidou added, but it would be better than current practice.
     The ethnographer cited research showing that 50 percent to 70 percent of water utility companies with lead service lines would exceed the EPA’s threshold for lead.
     “This finding could affect up to 96 million residents in this country who are being told their water is safe to drink,” Lambrinidou said in an interview.
     Lambrinidou noted that lead-certified water filters would help protect individual homes, but these can be pricey and inaccessible for low-income families.
     “The most vulnerable communities will be hardest hit,” Lambrinidou said.
     
     Partial Lead-Pipe Replacement, a Partial Solution
     The lead and copper rule allows water utilities to conduct only partial replacements of lead service lines, a rule that lets utilities focus on the public portion of lead pipes while privately owned property goes unchecked.
     Concerns about how EPA determined control of, and thus responsibility for, water service lines put the rule in place. A group called the American Water Works Association won that 1993 challenge, but the court left open the question of responsibility.
     Combined with years of lobbying by the water industry, the ruling led the EPA to condone partial replacements.
     George Hawkins, the CEO and general manager of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, blamed partial replacements for causing temporary spikes in lead levels, putting public health at risk.
     A 2010 study in Environmental Health Perspectives, the research journal published with support from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, supports Hawkins’ assertion that partial replacements do not reduce lead levels in the long run.
     Though D.C. Water still does partial replacements of lead service lines when it replaces water mains, Hawkins said that the authority also tries to persuade home owners to replace the private side of the infrastructure at the same time, with an approximate 40 percent success rate.
     D.C. Water provides public notice when it replaces a water main, offers lead-certified filters to residents and conducts lead monitoring, Hawkins said. But the cost for home owners to replace the privately owned portion of the pipes can be prohibitive, he noted.
     It costs about $100 per foot to replace pipes in private homes, Hawkins said, estimating a median total cost of $2,500, a figure well beyond the reach of low- or fixed-income families.
     
     The Bigger Picture
     Grading it at a D-plus in 2013, the American Society for Civil Engineers said U.S. water infrastructure was “nearing the end of its useful life.”
     With the American Water Works Association estimating 6.1 million lead service lines in 11,200 community water systems across, experts say a national project is needed to replace them.
     Jeffrey Griffiths, professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University, said the cost of replacing these pipes will be far less than dealing with the public health costs of lead poisoning, but the worry of higher taxes makes Americans reluctant.
     “If people they think they’re getting OK water, they don’t care about maintaining the infrastructure for other people,” he said in an interview.
     Lambrinidou said the EPA should close loopholes in its lead and copper rule before the focus turns to fully replacing lead service lines.
     “Common sense tells me that first we need to secure the integrity of the rule,” she said.
     The EPA is considering changes to the lead and copper rule, and will consider recommendations from the National Drinking Water Advisory Council and other concerned citizens groups, a representative for the agency said in an email.
     Lambrinidou participated in the council, but wrote a strong statement of dissent to some of its conclusions.
     The council does recommend eventual full replacement of lead service lines, which Lambrinidou says she supports, but she criticized a provision that would still allow partial replacements.
     Lambrinidou said the council’s other recommendations would also let water utilities indefinitely delay replacement – possibly for decades.
     Unless the EPA revises the current rule and closes its loopholes, consumers will have less protection from lead exposure, Lambrinidou’s dissent argues.
     A representative for the EPA said the agency’s revision process will include careful evaluation of all the recommendations it receives from stakeholders, including the council.
     “During evaluation that could mean we take some recommendations and not others,” the EPA said in an email.
     Griffiths said the stakes are high since lead exposure carries serious health risks, including stunted intellectual development.
     “Our biggest obstacle to fixing the lead problem in the U.S. is the lack of political will,” Griffiths said. “It is not a political issue; it is a public health issue.”
     D.C. Water’s Hawkins agreed that “this ought to be one that cuts across political parties.”
     “We all want to make sure that children have safe drinking water when they get up in the morning,” Hawkins added.
     Any national project would need to include a plan and funding for replacing lead pipes in privately owned homes, Hawkins said.
     “Once you fix it, you fix it for all future generations.”

This article concludes a tw0-part series on the regulatory loopholes that disguise the presence of lead in water systems across the country. If you missed Part I, catch up here.

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