Summary of selected portions of article series by Alison Young and Mark Nichols, “Lead in Your Water,” USA Today, March, 2016
A USA Today Network investigation examining EPA enforcement data has identified almost 2,000 water systems where testing has shown lead contamination levels exceeding the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb). The water systems span all 50 states and collectively supply water to 6 million people. At least 180 of the contaminated water systems failed to notify consumers as required by law. There were 600 more water systems in which tests at some taps showed lead levels topping 40 ppb, or more than double the action level. A water sample at an elementary school in Ithaca, N.Y., tested at an alarming 5,000 ppb of lead, the EPA’s threshold for “hazardous waste.”
Most Americans get their drinking water from a fragmented network of about 155,000 different water systems with limited and inconsistent testing requirements, meaning the full scope of the lead contamination problem could be even more widespread. In Flint, Michigan, the water department changed to a corrosive river water source and failed to treat it with anti-corrosion chemicals, resulting in pervasive contamination as the insides of old lead pipes broke down as they corroded. The primary risk factor – old lead service lines, plus interior plumbing containing lead – is a widespread, common problem.
Lead poses a health threat even at small doses, especially for pregnant women and young children since lead can damage growing brains and cause reduced IQs, attention disorders and other problem behaviors. For adults, there is evidence linking lead exposure to kidney problems, high blood pressure and increased risks of cardiovascular deaths. The EPA stresses there is no safe level of lead exposure.
Unlike other contaminants that can be filtered out at the water plant, lead usually contaminates drinking water as it travels through lead service lines on individual properties and lead plumbing fixtures, especially for homes and buildings built before 1986, when the Safe Drinking Water Act mandated significant reductions in the amount of lead allowed in solder and other plumbing components. The EPA advisory council has recommended the Agency strengthen the existing Lead and Copper Rule, implemented in 1991. The EPA is evaluating the recommendations and expects to propose revisions to its lead contamination regulations in 2017.
Tips for checking the safety of a tap water source
- Assess the age of the building and find out about its water line and plumbing. If it was built before 1986, the plumbing likely contains lead.
- Contact the water service provider for information and ask whether the utility-owned portion of the service line to your building or house is made of lead and whether the company has ever, even partially, replaced a lead service line at your address.
- Contact a plumber to help assess whether the building has lead pipes, solder or fixtures.
- Have water tested but understand limitations of testing. Even if a water test does not show contamination, it doesn’t mean that the water is consistently safe if it travels through lead pipes. Pieces of lead solder can break off at any time and corrosion of lead can also change over time.
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