Monday, September 25, 2023
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Holes in Lead-Contamination Data Explored

WASHINGTON (CN) - As the crisis in Flint, Michigan, sparks attention to lead levels in the Jackson, Mississippi, and Philadelphia water systems, experts warn that loopholes in federal law have made lead poisoning a problem for millions of Americans.

"We are quite confident that these cities are the tip of the iceberg," said Yanna Lambrinidou, a medical ethnographer and president of Washington-based advocacy group Parents for Non-Toxic Alternatives.

Lambrinidou sees a disconnect in how water companies comply with a requirement of the Environmental Protection Agency's lead and copper rule that requires utilities to test homes with the highest risk for lead contamination.

Without proper inventories of lead service lines, Lambrinidou noted, water utilities cannot adequately identify the 50 highest-risk homes for testing every three years, as the lead and copper rule requires.

And she's not the only one with concerns. Jeffrey Griffiths, a professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University, noted that water utilities simply did not keep track of lead piping prior to 1970.

"There is no map of where all these lead lines are," Griffiths said.

Whether a water utility has an accurate map of lead service lines can vary from utility to utility, he said.

"The only way we would actually know is if we did what needs to be done, which is to map the pipes that we have."

Lambrinidou said the public is lulled into a false sense of security about the safety of their drinking water when water companies miss the highest-risk homes with the highest lead levels.

Easier Said Than Done

The lead and copper rule requires water utilities to act only if lead concentrations exceed the action level of 15 parts per billion in more than 10 percent of homes tested.

When that happens, water systems must inform the public of possible health risks, undertake additional corrosion-control measures and possibly replace lead service lines.

Some water systems have more lead service lines than others. Representing one of the wealthiest counties in the country, for example, the Fairfax County Water Authority in Virginia replaced its lead service lines before implementation of the lead and copper rule, spokeswoman Susan Miller said.

Though Miller did not say how many lead service lines there had been, she did say the system had very few to begin with, likely because the water system in Fairfax County is relatively young. The authority nevertheless had more than enough homes to fill its sample pool, as required by the lead and copper rule, Miller added.

Fairfax Water began working to identify any lead service lines in 1988, Miller said, in preparation for compliance with the lead and copper rule when the EPA implemented it in 1991. After using utility and county records to narrow down a small pool of homes that may have had lead-solder or lead pipes, Miller said the authority narrowed that pool further by inspecting the pipes in these homes, eventually identifying 11 homes with private lead service lines.

The authority notified these customers of the presence of the pipes, said Miller.

"Since our first Lead and Copper Rule sampling in 1994, only two out of the 61 samples collected from these 11 homes had samples exceeding the action level," Miller said in an email.

Fairfax Water reported its test results to its customers, and follow-up samples in those homes fell below the lead action level, Miller added.


Miller said the authority has used corrosion control for more than 10 years.

"This has likely prevented the lead in these customers' plumbing from leaching into the water."

The Fairfax Water Authority might be an outlier. The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority says it has significantly more lead service lines in its system than Fairfax Water has.

Of the 125,000 service lines in D.C. Water's system, 12,540 in public space are lead and 16,910 have unknown material, spokesman William Pickering said in an email.

D.C. Water shares records related to service-line materials with its customers, but it "has not conducted a full inventory of unknown service lines," Pickering added.

"For these sites, there is no record for the material of construction," he said.

The only way to definitively determine the material of the unknown pipes is through excavation of the area between the water main, a second excavation at property lines and inspections inside buildings at the first point of connection, Pickering said.

"This effort to accurately identify the material of construction of all unknown services is labor and time intensive."

Lessons Learned

Lambrinidou says assurances from water utilities, such as that from the Fairfax Water Authority that it has no lead service lines in its system, can raise a series of additional questions that often go unanswered without evidence of a problem.

"Unless we know they are targeting the highest risk homes and are sampling correctly, the assurance remains unsubstantiated," Lambrinidou said in an interview.

She noted that Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives, D.C residents and other advocates of safe drinking water have pressed D.C. Water since 2011 to release information about how it identifies high-risk homes.

It has also asked for evidence that the pool of homes it tests actually have full or partial lead service lines.

DC Water spokesman Pickering said the authority determines if a home has a partial- or full-lead service line and qualifies as high-risk, what the district calls Tier 1 status, by "reviewing past service tap installation information, plumbing records, home-build dates, residential/multifamily building status, and D.C. Water construction data."

In the aftermath of the lead-in-water crisis that hit D.C. in the early 2000s, caused by a switch in water-treatment chemicals from chlorine to chloramine, the district has made improvements, Lambrinidou said.

D.C. Water CEO and General Manager George Hawkins echoed this sentiment. Though not at the helm then, Hawkins said the agency learned from the crisis, and benefitted from working with water-safety advocates, including Lambrinidou.

Lambrinidou described the interaction with D.C. Water as fruitful, and said the district has a far better sampling protocol than it used to.

Hawkins credited input from water advocates as directly leading to various changes in D.C.'s water-monitoring programs. One change is that D.C. Water no longer pre-flushes the taps for several minutes prior to the mandatory six-hour stagnation period before samples are collected.

Water advocates including Lambrinidou say the practice can artificially lower lead levels in collected samples.

D.C. water also switched to wide-mouthed sampling bottles, which can catch water flows more representative of how people actually use water in their homes.

New EPA guidance issued on Feb. 29 recommends adherence to these changes.

Hawkins said the authority made other changes, too.

In addition to testing any proposed water-system changes in a lab first, Hawkins said D.C. now has a more diligent corrosion-treatment program and issues public alerts as soon as it believes a public health risk could exist - before any actual problem is confirmed.

"We absolutely learned to err on the side of alerts rather than waiting," he added.

With still "a lot of lead lines out there," Hawkins said D.C. Water is on par with other cities in terms of risk.

"The lead is still there and could be a problem in the future," Hawkins said. "And I don't have any silver bullet for that. That is big money no matter what."

But "the protective steps are relatively inexpensive in comparison to the public health costs," he added.

Lambrinidou said water utilities should follow D.C.'s example by collaborating with residents and advocates.

"We've asked them to go beyond that to include D.C. residents into a permanent partnership," she added.

As in D.C. in the early 2000s and in Flint, Lambrinidou said, water utilities too often discount input from residents and advocates who ring the alarm about lead contamination.

This "reinforces the very structural power imbalances that are creating these disasters in the first place," she added.

Lambrinidou said there is still a long way to go to ensure that monitoring reflects the latest scientific knowledge about lead in service lines, especially in transparency around how water utilities identify high-risk homes for testing.

This article opens a two-part series on regulatory loopholes that disguise the presence of lead in water systems across the country. Courthouse News will run Part II on Thursday, shedding light on the efforts that experts say need support.

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