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.