The nation has been shocked in recent months as the man-made water disaster unfolds in Flint, Mich., as tests revealed extremely high levels of lead in Flint’s water supply. But a new investigation by the USA TODAY NETWORK has revealed the lead problem is not limited to Flint. In fact, the news agency reports evidence of excessive lead contamination in nearly 2,000 water systems in all 50 states.
Drinking water usually is not contaminated by lead when it leaves the water treatment plant. The problem arises when water is especially corrosive, is not treated with anti-corrosive agents, and travels through lead service lines and lead pipes in individual homes. Most homes built before 1980 contain some lead plumbing, and about 7.3 million homes in the U.S. are connected to lead service lines, which is the pipe that carries the water from the water main into the home. The more corrosive the water, the more lead will be drawn out of pipes and leach into tap water.
Flint’s residents were exposed to lead poisoning when the state and city officials started drawing Flint’s water from the highly polluted Flint River instead of its traditional source, Lake Huron, as a conservative money-saving measure. Those in charge of the switch neglected to run anti-corrosion chemicals through the water system that would have protected against corrosion and may have prevented some of the problems that occurred.
As the toxic water ran through the Flint water system, it corroded the old pipes forming the city’s water infrastructure, allowing lead and other contaminants to leach into the tap water used by city residents. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stressed there is no safe level of lead exposure. EPA guidelines establish that a system has exceeded the lead standard when more than 10 percent of samples show lead levels greater than 15 parts per billion (ppb).
Levels of lead contamination in Flint have been reported at levels as high as 104 to 13,200 parts per billion. The EPA designates levels more than 5,000 ppb as “hazardous waste.” Independent researchers have tested more than 15,000 homes in Flint to date, revealing more than 1,000 samples with lead content greater than the 15 ppb EPA limit, and more than 40 homes with levels higher than 40 ppb.
Results from water tests around the country are alarming as well. USA TODAY reports many of the highest reported lead levels were in elementary schools and day cares. The news agency reviewed EPA enforcement data and discovered 600 water systems that had lead levels of more than 40 ppb, more than double the EPA’s action level limit.
The infrastructure problem is most concerning. Anti-corrosion chemicals can only reduce the corrosive effects. It does not eliminate the problem of lead leaching into tap water. The more corrosive the water is, the more lead will be drawn out of the pipes, but nothing entirely eliminates the leaching process if the water is at all corrosive.
The EPA’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council has called for the nationwide removal of lead service lines. However, because generally the water utility owns part of the line and the rest belongs to the homeowner, the task is daunting. Cost of replacing a service line can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. There are about 155,000 different water systems serving small towns, big cities, and even individual businesses and buildings. Most of the water systems that failed to meet EPA limits serve a few hundred to several thousand each.
While the EPA is working to strengthen existing regulations for monitoring water quality, even regular testing can only provide an indication of a problem. Samples may be drawn from as few as five or 10 taps a year, if it even occurs annually. Even the largest water systems are only required to test water from 50 to 100 taps per year.
Even if tests reveal lead levels in excess of EPA allowable limits, USA TODAY reports many water systems were not warning people as they are required to do. Without an effective system to monitor and enforce compliance with testing and reporting, consumers are left in the dark. Small systems with limited resources flounder in the face of potential problems.
“The Flint, Michigan, situation has really opened our eyes to what’s going on,” Patty Thompson, engineering manager for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality told USA Today. However, as we know all to well, seeing and doing are two different things. It’s time for those in government at every level who have the responsibility to deal with the problems facing the people in Flint – and actually the entire nation – to act responsibly and work diligently to solve the most serious problems discussed above once and for all.
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