Elevated lead levels in drinking water may be the best-kept secret of public water systems across the country, and the problem also is a surprise guest in the homes of people with private water wells.
Those facts were revealed in separate investigations recently by reporters for USA Today and Reuters. USA Today found that water tested in all 50 states indicated excessive levels of lead in some 2,000 water systems and that many of the results were not reported. Reuters investigated private water wells in mainly rural areas serving older homes with lead pipes.
The well-publicized crisis in Flint, Michigan, where spiked lead levels were discovered in 2015, has drawn attention to the practices of treating water in other cities and towns. In Flint, the lack of a corrosion prevention chemical during water treatment was deemed the cause, and despite the fact that testing had revealed the problem, it was hidden by the Environmental Protection Agency and ignored by state government.
Lead most commonly gets into drinking water as the pipes serving homes built before the early 1980s corrode over time. In Flint, members of the public began to notice strange physical symptoms, and independent research confirmed extremely high levels of lead in the water.
Owners of homes with wells are facing the issue on their own, as the EPA regulates only public drinking water systems. The problem has been discovered sometimes by accident as doctors think to test the blood of their patients for the presence of lead. The Flint crisis also has raised the awareness of some alert homeowners, and they have tested their drinking water on their own.
The Safe Water Drinking Act of 1974 requires the EPA to monitor the contaminants of drinking water produced by public utilities. The agency must determine at what level these contaminants pose no health risk, and in the case of lead, it must apply the “Lead and Copper Rule.”
The regulation requires water systems to collect tap samples from areas most likely served by lead pipes. If more than 10 percent of them exceed the lead level of 15 parts per billion, further action is required, like enhancing corrosion control, educating the public, and replacing service lines.
USA Today’s investigation found that many of the troubling lead level tests were those conducted at schools and day care centers.
“A water sample at a Maine elementary school was 42 times higher than the EPA limit of 15 parts per billion,” the newspaper reports, “while a Pennsylvania preschool was 14 times higher, records show. At an elementary school in Ithaca, N.Y., one sample tested this year at a stunning 5,000 ppb of lead, the EPA’s threshold for ‘hazardous waste.'”
And CNN reported last week that elevated lead levels had been found in 30 public schools in Newark, New Jersey. Officials there pointed out that the levels were only slightly above the 15 ppb maximum and nothing near the dangerous levels found in Flint. Still, drinking fountains were shut off and bottled water made available while corrective action was being taken.
The good news may be that the Flint crisis has raised awareness and alerted the rest of the country to a national health issue that can be addressed before it’s too late. The bad news is that there may be too many instances of excessive levels of lead in drinking water for local water systems to deal with quickly and efficiently on their own.
There are calls for the replacement of lead lines all across America as soon as possible. Tom Neltner, J.D., the chemicals policy director of the Environmental Defense Fund, warns that the Lead and Copper Rule must be strengthened and says a cooperative effort between local government, utility companies, residents, and the EPA in the form of regulation and funding must begin now.
[Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP]