Philadelphia Upbraided on Lead-in-Water Testing

     PHILADELPHIA (CN) — Spurred to action by the crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Philadelphia woman says her city has allowed dangerous levels of lead to contaminate the water supply.
     Hoping to represent a class, Eleni Delopoulos filed suit Thursday in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, taking aim at Philadelphia’s “deceptive, reckless and unethical” methods of testing water for potential lead exposure.
     There are still 60,000 homes in Philadelphia that get their water from lead pipes, and Delopoulos says the city has known for years that construction projects and repairs to water mains have allowed lead to leach into the supple.
     “Despite these blatant red flags, the city has not only failed to initiate any change, take preventative measures, or warn its residents, but has also actively taken steps to conceal the problem,” the complaint states. “The city accomplishes this deception by rigging its lead-testing procedures in two ways.”
     Philadelphia tests its water in compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule, but Delopolous says “the city has gradually altered its strategy to avoid testing under the worst case scenario conditions that the LCR intends to capture.”
     “These methods — some of which plainly violate the LCR and all of which defy valid justification — are designed to game the system and elude exceeding the lead action level,” the complaint continues.
     Delopolous says “the city has no scientific or legitimate basis for implementing its suspect methodology, thereby illuminating its true motive: to obfuscate and conceal the citywide lead contamination problem.”
     One way Philadelphia games the system is by concentrating screening in areas identified as low risk for lead exposure.
     “Such a practice is not only deceptive, reckless, and unethical, but plainly violates federal law; EPA regulations require a city the size of Philadelphia, which has thousands of residences with lead service lines, to collect samples from exclusively high-risk homes,” the complaint states.
     Diluting the testing pool allows Philadelphia to skews “the results in such a way as to paint a woefully inaccurate picture of the city’s overall lead contamination,” Delopolous says.
     The class says Philadelphia also has a trick to “increase the likelihood of a false negative” when it collects a sample from a high-risk home.
     Indeed the instructions Philadelphia gives for residents to collect water samples “can temporarily hide a home’s lead contamination,” the complaint states.
     Environmental advocacy groups blasted Philadelphia earlier this year for continuing to advise that customers pre-flush their taps before collecting samples for testing.
     “I do not know, or claim to know, what levels of lead are flowing out of Philadelphia home taps,” Yanna Lambrinidou of Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives wrote in the letter. “I (and my colleagues) are simply concerned that the method [the Water Department] uses to monitor for lead is scientifically questionable and may yield both unreliable results and misleading assurances of safety.”
     Lambrinidou reiterated this position upon learning that Philadelphia now faces a class action.
     “Philadelphia has been ignoring both the intent of the LCR and what the scientific community knows to be true about the effect of [disregarding its guidelines],” Lambrinidou said in an interview.
     Delopolous says the EPA and water experts around the country specifically advise municipalities against using such testing procedures for this reason, but Phialdelphia “continues to defiantly ignore these warnings.”
     Philadelphia’s water supply is at risk because construction activity breaks down the anti-corrosive chemical that the city uses on its lead pipes, according to the complaint.
     While construction tends to disturb to lead service lines, Delopolous says the city also increases the chances of contamination during water-main or meter-replacement work.
     By performing partial lead service-line replacement, the city cuts “directly into the lead service line, which can cause even more lead particulates to break off from the pipe and contaminate the water supply,” according to the complaint.
     One study quoted in the complaint says partial service line replacement “not only pollutes the water supply with lead in the short term, but also creates the perfect conditions for the remaining lead pipe to corrode much more quickly.”
     “The result is that the lead slowly and intermittently leaches into a resident’s drinking water over time,” the complaint continues.
     Scrutiny of Philadelphia’s testing comes as the city of Flint, Michigan, grapples with a water-contamination crisis that has been tied to incidents of lead poisoning and Legionnaires disease. Flint’s water is still not safe to drink unfiltered after the state failed to implement corrosion controls when forcing the city to draw from the polluted Flint River in April 2014 as a cost-cutting move.
     Philadelphia found itself in the hot seat this past January when the Guardian quoted an expert as saying the city’s lead testing procedures “worse than Flint.” As the fifth-largest city in the country, the implications of Philadelphia’s water safety are grave.
     Philadelphia’s city council reacted to the report by calling for hearings to examine Water Department testing protocol.
     City Water Commissioner Debra McCarty testified at one such hearing in March, saying that “Philadelphia’s drinking water is lead-free.”
     A transcript of that speech provided by the city says McCarty called the city’s corrosion-protection program “award-winning.”
     Lead exposure is linked to nerve dysfunction, hypertension, infertility and higher risk of cancer. Children are especially vulnerable to complications as their blood and nervous system functions are still developing.
     Delopolous says “Philadelphia’s rate of lead poisoning remains alarmingly high.”
     “According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health in 2014, of the nearly 36,000 children tested in Philadelphia under the age of seven, more than one in every ten exhibited elevated blood lead levels,” the complaint states.
     In a section of its website, meanwhile, the Philadelphia Water Department maintains that they “go above and beyond requirements for lead testing, and offer individual help for customers concerned about lead pipes.”
     Despite the risk of lead plumbing, Philadelphia says city drinking water is “lead-free and safe.”
     A representative for the Water Department did not return a voicemail seeking comment.
     Delopoulos wants damages for the “irreversible damages” to lead service lines during the construction work performed on their water mains.
     She says the city was negligent in breaching its duty to ensure their water was “reasonably free of dangerous contaminants … that would expose [them] to unnecessary health risks,” and request the establishment of a medical monitoring trust fund to allow for regular lead poisoning screening.
     The class is represented by Christopher Seeger and Scott George of Seeger Weiss.

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