What’s the Best Way to Protect People from Lead-Tainted Drinking Water?

Some say it’s better corrosion control. Others say it’s getting lead service lines out of the system altogether. But many observers agree that current federal regulations are totally inadequate. (Photo: Darron Cummings / AP)

The problem of lead in drinking water has been well-known for years. But the tragedy in Flint, Michigan, where lead-tainted water poisoned hundreds of children and contributed to several deaths, has catapulted the issue into the spotlight.

In particular, a debate has opened up about overhauling federal regulations on lead in drinking water. And many experts are concerned that the Environmental Protection Agency is considering rule changes that could actually weaken efforts to protect public health.

LISTEN: Why U.S. Lead Rules Need an Upgrade

The intention of the Lead and Copper Rule — the flagship federal regulation on lead — is to identify and limit lead in drinking water. But the rule isn’t effective, according to Mark Edwards, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who helped expose Flint’s lead problem.

“To understand what a sick joke the existing law has become, you only need to know that as the National Guard walked the streets of Flint, Michigan — distributing bottled water and filters, and you had neighborhoods of children with elevated lead in their blood — Flint was not failing the Lead and Copper Rule,” Edwards says.

So how could a community with such high lead levels in the water not have been in violation of the federal standard? Under the current rule, water utilities are supposed to test tap water at some of the homes they consider high-risk for lead every few years. For a city like Flint with around 100,000 people, the requirement has been that they take at least 100 samples from homes like these, calculate the 90th percentile of those samples, and determine where they stand. If their sampling shows that the 90th percentile calculation is above 15 parts per billion, the city has to take action.

That could mean adjusting corrosion control chemicals at the water treatment plant, or starting a program to replace water service lines made of lead. But that’s expensive. And Edwards says many water utilities, like Flint’s, use testing methods that “cheat” the rule. This involves things like instructing residents to remove aerators from the faucets or let their tap water run for several minutes the night before taking samples. These techniques can hide lead contamination. “We’ve known about horrific gaps and loopholes in this rule for at least 10 years now,” he says.

Last year, The Guardian identified 33 cities, including Boston, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia, that use practices like these (Pittsburgh did not make the list). The City of Philadelphia declined to comment for this story, but a class-action lawsuit brought by residents accuses the city of cheating on its lead tests. Meanwhile in Flint, the state filed criminal charges against local and state officials, in part for hiding high lead levels from residents.

A work crew digs up a street to replace lead service lines, Monday, March 21, 2016, in Flint, Michigan. The goal is to replace thousands of lead-tainted service lines in the city. Photo: Carlos Osorio / AP

A work crew digs up a street to replace lead service lines, Monday, March 21, 2016, in Flint, Michigan. Photo: Carlos Osorio / AP

But even before the crisis in Flint, Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director at the Environmental Defense Fund, was working on an overhaul of the 26-year-old federal lead rule, as a member of an advisory committee organized by the EPA. The Lead and Copper Work Group, which included representatives from water utilities and public health departments, came out with a set of recommendations in 2015. The group’s primary focus was replacing lead service lines — the pipes that connect the main water line at the street to people’s homes.

“We basically said that the current system makes lead service line [replacement] the last resort — you only do it after corrosion control has failed and nothing else is working,” Neltner says. “What we said is you need to start now — right up front — you need to have a program to get these lines replaced.”

The American Waterworks Association, which represents the water utility industry, has endorsed this recommendation. Most older cities are rife with lead service lines, and replacing them throughout the country could take 30 years or more. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has already ordered Pittsburgh to replace seven percent of its lead service lines a year because of its elevated lead levels and problems with corrosion control.

But some experts say this still won’t solve the problem in many homes.

“That won’t do very much because most of the lead in people’s drinking water isn’t coming from lead service pipes. It’s coming from the plumbing in their house,” says Joel Schwartz, an environmental epidemiologist in the Harvard School of Public Health.

Schwartz says many homes, even if they don’t have lead service lines, may still have lead in the solder that connects pipes, valves and faucets. For this reason, he wants the revised Lead and Copper Rule to focus instead on improving corrosion control chemistry. “Corrosion control works everywhere and is a lot cheaper,” he says.

Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Quality is requiring Pittsburgh to replace lead pipes after recent tests showed lead levels exceeding federal limits. But just how much it will cost and how long it will take is anybody's guess. Photo: Seth Perlman / AP

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Quality is requiring Pittsburgh to replace lead pipes after recent tests showed lead levels exceeding federal limits. But just how much it will cost and how long it will take is anybody’s guess. Photo: Seth Perlman / AP

Yanna Lambrinidou, professor of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech, also sat on the EPA working group that reviewed the Lead and Copper Rule. While she calls replacing lead service lines a “no brainer,” she also wrote an extensive dissent to the group’s recommendations because they didn’t close the loopholes that allow utilities to underestimate lead in the water. In fact, they wouldn’t even require sampling in the homes at highest risk for lead anymore.

That might make things worse — namely because home samples inform corrosion control decisions. And if samples are indicating artificially low levels of lead, water utilities might respond with corrosion control that’s inadequate to protect residents from serious exposures.

Lambrinidou says consumers having better information will be key to improving federal protections.

“We would be in a much better position to argue for a regulation that is more just and is more fair and places public health over and above cost and liability interests that preoccupy water utilities,” she says.

The EPA is expected to use the working group recommendations to release an official draft rule later this year.

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This story is part of our series Hidden Poison, a public media partnership of The Allegheny Front, 90.5 WESA News, PublicSource and Keystone Crossroads. Learn more at hiddenpoison.org.