Lead poisoning in the water of Flint, Michigan, has sparked a national outcry over perceived government inability to properly test the local supply.
Those in disbelief over the events in Flint will find little comfort in a new set of revelations published by the Guardian on Friday afternoon. Government documents show that negligence in the handling of the water supply goes far beyond the Michigan city.
The British paper published documents on Friday afternoon that indicate widespread practices that make lead poisoning appear lower in test samples. A whistleblower, who has worked with the process, said that the same methods are used in “every major U.S. city east of the Mississippi.” That’s despite the fact that they have been deemed “misleading” by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“By word of mouth, this has become the thing to do in the water industry. The logical conclusion is that millions of people’s drinking water is potentially unsafe.”
Some of these testing methods — all outside of EPA regulation — included telling citizens to flush our their pipes before checking lead levels in their water and removing the faucet’s aerator before testing. Virginia tech academic Yanna Lambrinidou, who has worked closely with the EPA on lead and copper testing methods since 1991, told the news site that she believes Flint’s lead poisoning problem is part of a larger issue with a lack of attention to protocol.
“There is no way that Flint is a one-off. There are many ways to game the system. In Flint, they went to test neighborhoods where they knew didn’t have a problem. You can also flush the water to get rid of the lead. If you flush it before sampling, the problem will go away… The EPA has completely turned its gaze away from this. There is no robust oversight here, the only oversight is from the people getting hurt. Families who get hurt, such as in Flint, are the overseers. It’s an horrendous situation. The system is absolutely failing.”
In Michigan, it appears that the practice of advising locals to run their tap water before testing it for lead was common. Detroit, Grand Rapids, Andover, Muskegon, Holland, and Jackson all received instruction to flush tap water before testing it.
In Philadelphia, as recently as last November, authorities told citizens to do the same, as well as remove the aerator from the tap. A senior Philadelphia Water official wrote to Lambrinidou, saying that they were “confused” about what to tell citizens due to a dearth of information.
“We are trying to stay up on the latest science as best we can. We get confused by it and wish that a national forum of experts could get together and agree. But it’s often left to us to try and make sense out of everything that is published and talked about.”
Also named in the article were the water companies behind Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.’s regulation. In the latter, the director of ground water and drinking water at the EPA wrote that only flushing in houses that were tested — as opposed to telling everyone to do so for safety — seemed to “go against the intent of the monitoring protocol.” Paul Schwartz, national policy coordinator of Water Alliance, warned that the issue in Flint is unlikely to be contained there.
“The industry’s own reports show that if large water utilities followed the EPA standard for sampling, they would routinely exceed the lead limit. The EPA has been in a very cosy relationship with the state regulators and the water utilities. They’ve allowed themselves to be captured and they haven’t followed the science… What we have is a recipe for a public health disaster that is much larger than what we’ve seen so far. It will take us years to get out of this situation.”
Mounting criticism over the Flint, MI, water crisis received another push on Friday when it was revealed that state governor Rick Snyder was informed of the lead testing deficiency nearly a year ago.
[Image via Sarah Rice/Getty Images]