Vermont legislators have just passed a bill that will require schools to test water for lead, and that will require the state to pay for it. The bill comes after increased national concern about potential toxins in school water systems: just last year, Vermont tested water in 16 schools, and all were found to have traces of lead in their water. <Read more>
by Summer-Solstice Thomas, CHEJ Science & Technology Intern
In the small town of O’Brien, Texas, residents drank water that violated drinking water quality standards for months before one resident found out and altered his community. Facing financial stress, the city had switched from a treated reservoir to a groundwater source with violatingly high levels of nitrates to provide drinking water for its residents.
Nitrate pollution usually comes from fertilizers, as in agricultural towns like O’Brien, and can cause methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby” disease in infants. Nitrate levels in O’Brien schools were found to be 40% above EPA standards. Upon hearing the news, many residents switched to drinking bottled water or purchased individual water filters, but not all were financially able to.
O’Brien is just one example of residents suffering from public water quality violations, but they are not alone. In fact, millions of Americans consume unsafe public drinking water everyday.
Is US Drinking Water Safe?
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US has “one of the safest public drinking water supplies in the world”. Recent reports, however, have challenged that statement. In March, EPA’s Administrator Andrew Wheeler assured that 92% of public water in the US meets EPA standards.
Given that 90% of Americans, or 300 million people, rely on drinking water from a public source, the 8% that doesn’t currently meet EPA standards indicates that over 26 million Americans consume unsafe water daily. Additionally, while the EPA sets legal limits for over 90 drinking water contaminants, ensuring that these limits are not breached is dependent on proper funding and oversight. Based on the 22% decrease between 2009 and 2014 in funding for public water distribution by state and local governments nationwide, it is possible that more than 8% of the nation’s water is unsafe.
While the CDC has determined that there is no safe blood level of lead for children, the EPA lead rule determines action must be taken if 10% or more of taps sampled have a lead level of 15 ppb or greater. Recently, this rule has come under scrutiny as many companies find ways around the regulation, by selectively testing certain taps, “pre-flushing” or sampling slowly to reduce samples’ lead concentrations.
Additionally, in 2016, CNN found 5,300 US water systems, serving more than 18 million people, to be in violation of this rule. When the lead rule was first implemented by EPA in 1991, 10 million lead lines served public water nationwide. While this number has decreased to 6.1 million lead lines, there are still 15-22 million Americans served by lead lines, predominantly in the Midwest.
Of the 10,000 public systems violating EPA drinking water standards in 2015, 72% of them were bacteria violations. Bacterial drinking water illness outbreaks have been rising since 2000, with 42 outbreaks between 2013-2014, causing over 1,000 cases of illness. Such violations often occur from contamination of water supplies by animal manure from agricultural operations or sewage, causing 16 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illness annually.
Violations of water quality are not experienced equally across the nation, and instead they disparately impact communities of color and low socioeconomic status. Research has determined that the prevalence of nitrates and pesticides in drinking water supplies in the San Joaquin Valley, California’s agricultural powerhouse, is significantly higher in Latinx and low-income communities. After the well-publicized water crisis in Flint, Michigan, children residing in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods were found to have greater elevation of blood lead levels when compared to their peers.
The fiasco in Flint, MI has forced an important change in EPA’s recommended protocols for testing lead in drinking water. In a memo to state health and water administrators issued February 29, 2016, the US EPA reversed its prior recommendations on how to sample drinking water targeted for lead testing. The new protocols are as follows:
- Do not remove or clean faucet aerators prior to collecting samples
- Do not pre-flush prior to sampling
- Use wide mouth sample bottles to allow water flow to enter at a rate similar to what consumers might use when pouring a glass of water to drink
In the past, EPA‘s advice was to pre-clean the aerator, flush pipes prior to sampling, and open the tap slowly and sample at low flow. Using these guidelines results in less particulate lead getting into the sample and thus finding lower lead concentrations in the water. Removing or cleaning an aerator prior to testing masks the added contribution of lead at the tap that results from the lead in the aerator. Flushing the pipe prior to sampling eliminates the lead that has built up overnight or since the last time the faucet was used. Pouring the water slowly, whether by using a narrow container or by just opening the tap slowly, also reduces particulate lead that gets into the water by not disturbing lead present in the pipe as much as a normal flush would. These inaccurate procedures were called to task by Dr. Marc Edwards from Virginia Tech University who found high levels of lead in the drinking water in Flint, MI.
Despite the fact that this is not what people typically do when they pour a glass of water from the sink to drink, these are the sampling procedures that EPA has been advocating for years and what water companies have been using for years to measure lead in drinking water. By using these procedures, water companies everywhere, not just in Flint, are not accurately measuring the lead concentration in drinking water, and they are potentially missing a significant portion of the lead actually in the drinking water systems. Doing this provides a false sense of security that seriously endangers public health.
Although EPA has issued these new guidelines, there’s no guarantee that water companies around the country have switched to the new sampling procedures. If you’re concerned about the lead levels in your water, find out what sampling procedures are being used because it makes a huge difference. While we can thank the public attention given to the disaster in Flint for this critically important change, now we need to make sure that testing agencies across the country follow this new protocol. Contact CHEJ at firstname.lastname@example.org to obtain a copy of this important memo.