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A ‘teachable moment’ from Flint crisis challenges adequacy of water oversight

“Lead in Flint is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Richard L. Jackson, who formerly oversaw CDC’s environmental health division.

The Flint water crisis continues to inspire broadening inquiry into a pair of problems most of us thought this country had solved long ago.
REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

To a degree that impresses and somewhat surprises me, the Flint water crisis continues to inspire broadening inquiry into a pair of problems most of us thought this country had solved long ago:

  • Lead poisoning of children? Not since we got the heavy metal out of paint and gasoline.
  • Unsafe urban water supplies? Why, look at all the reductions in industrial pollution of lakes and rivers, plus massive investment in treatment plants.

Gains, of course, can be claimed on both fronts. But recent  revelations make it difficult to find much satisfaction or feel much faith in efforts that so often, in so many places, seem now to have fallen so far short of what’s needed.

In a commentary published Sunday, headlined “America Is Flint,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof made some calculations from data assembled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and arrived at these chilling comparisons:

In Flint, 4.9 percent of children tested for lead turned out to have elevated levels. That’s inexcusable. But in 2014 in New York State outside of New York City, the figure was 6.7 percent.

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In Pennsylvania, 8.5 percent. On the west side of Detroit, one-fifth of the children tested in 2014 had lead poisoning. In Iowa for 2012, the most recent year available, an astonishing 32 percent of children tested had elevated lead levels.

Consider also that children typically aren’t tested for lead in their blood unless they’ve already developed symptoms of lead poisoning, or have been subjected to a significant known exposure, or both. And the standards for investigation can vary widely.

In Wisconsin, for example – whose capital city is thought to be the first major U.S. metro area to replace all of its lead water lines – a child nowadays must have a blood level of lead three times the CDC’s recommended standard of 5 micrograms per deciliter to trigger a mandatory investigation. (A bill before the legislature would adopt the federal threshold and add a drinking-water test alongside the current checks for lead in paint, soil and dust around the home.)

For its statistical purposes, the CDC tests blood from a sample of about 1,200 American children  every two years. From those results it estimates that 535,000 kids between 1 and 5 years of age are carrying enough lead to put them at risk of intellectual and behavioral deficits, including a predilection for disruptive, disorderly conduct that later in life may reach a degree considered criminal.

“Lead in Flint is just the tip of the iceberg,” according to Richard L. Jackson, who formerly oversaw CDC’s environmental health division and is quoted in the Kristof column. We can only hope he’s right in observing, “Flint is a teachable moment for America.”

Replacing pipe raises risks

The list of major U.S. cities with notably leaded drinking water has not lengthened much since last week, but a different kind of revelation emerged from Chicago, where the Tribune been making an issue for a year or more of persistently high levels of lead poisoning in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

It turns out that replacing antiquated lead lines is not only a major hassle and hugely expensive, but the disturbance itself can raise lead levels in the lines for quite a while. This is an especially big problem in Chicago, whose plumbing codes insisted on lead pipe for supply lines long after other cities abandoned it.

That ended in 1986, with a national ban, but as Michael Hawthorne reported on Monday, a study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established that even today,

Nearly 80 percent of the properties in Chicago are hooked up to service lines made of lead. The study also found the city’s testing protocols — based on federal rules — are likely to miss high concentrations of lead in drinking water.

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Now the city is busily replacing the lead lines. But even though the EPA research established that lead “can flow out of faucets for years after construction work disrupts service lines that connect buildings to the city’s water system,” Hawthorne found that residents are given little assistance in avoiding exposure beyond advice to flush their taps until visible particles of residue are no cleared.

The EPA, on the other hand, advises any household known to have a portion of lead pipe in its supply route to flush pipes for three to five minutes whenever the water hasn’t been used for several hours, and to run a tap for 35 to 45 seconds every single time before drawing a glass of water to drink or for infant formula.

When questioned about water quality, officials say the city complies with the Lead and Copper Rule, a 1991 federal edict that created an elaborate set of procedures to test drinking water for those heavy metals. But the federal rule requires only 50 homes be tested every three years in Chicago, a city of 2.7 million people with more lead service lines than any other U.S. municipality.

Moreover, the rules require utilities to check only the first liter of water drawn in the morning. The EPA study found that although the first liter often is lead-free, high levels of the toxic metal can flow through taps for several minutes afterward, depending in part on the length of the service line between the home and street.

Road salt leaches lead

At the other end of the scale sizewise is Brick Township, New Jersey, a community of 75,000 whose problems arose somewhat mysteriously between 2011, when just two homes tested above the EPA’s lead standard of 15 parts per billion, and 2014, when 16 of 34 homes were above that line.

Among the chemicals that can accelerate leaching of lead into drinking water are certain chlorine compounds, and as The Times’ Michael Wines and John Schwartz reported Sunday, road-salt use went up in recent winters, which raised chloride levels in the river that served as the township’s water source.

“Brick is but one example of how lead contamination can elude rules and authorities, potentially for years,” the article observed:

Water systems use various protocols for tap water tests, and rules allow ordinary homeowners to conduct them unsupervised, raising questions about their consistency. Officials must disclose contamination and take remedial action only if tests show more than 10 percent of sampled homes exceed the standard. Advocates say that lets utilities declare their water safe even if contamination is uncovered.

”Over the last decade we’ve learned that the testing routines did not detect true risk from lead, that there are forms of lead that we’re not testing for and that testing was too infrequent,” said [Jeffrey K.]  New Griffiths, the former chairman of the EPA’s Drinking Water Committee. “It’s hard to see how the status quo in lead testing for water is adequately serving the public.”

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Who bothers to test?

I’ve owned three houses in my life and the first, in south Minneapolis, was a little over 50 years old when I bought it in 1982. I remember the FHA inspector requiring the seller to replace the old supply line with “copper to the street” – but the issue was water quantity, not quality.

The low-pressure problem turned out to be chiefly old galvanized verticals inside, which was on my mind when I bought the second house, also in south Minneapolis, a 1985 dwelling that attracted me with its copper and PVC pipes and a whole bunch of other modern component parts that, should they fail, could be replaced at Settergrens without the bouts of head-scratching, bemused perplexity that had become so tiresome.

But I never gave a thought to water quality, even though this was the year before the national ban on lead took effect and I imagine the issues  must have been in the news. I suppose I just assumed the city water would be OK until and unless the city told me otherwise. Wouldn’t you?

In fact, in 28 years of living in Minneapolis I never, ever heard of anybody having their city water tested for contamination.

When house No. 3 came along in western Wisconsin a test was part of the transaction because the supply was a private well (which passed that cursory test, and a very thorough, expensive and elective followup a few years later, with nearly ideal results). I admit I was uneasy about moving off city water to a “system” that amounted to a pipe poked into the ground, together with some plumbing  and a pump and pressure tank, all installed by some guys who I had to hope knew what they were doing, who might or might not be around to fix anything that went wrong.

What I’m taking from Flint’s “teachable moment” is that maybe I had it exactly backwards.

The lesson we can all find in it, I think, is that it’s sheer political blather to assert that U.S. regulation of environmental health risks falls somewhere between perfectly adequate and ridiculously extreme.


MinnPost event: On Monday, Feb. 22, MinnPost’s Earth Journal Circle will present its fourth annual event focusing on substantive discussion of critical issues in the environment. This year’s topic is “Land of 10,000 Lakes: Can We Achieve Water Sustainability?” The speaker is Deborah Swackhamer, former director of the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center, who will discuss issues threatening regional water quality and quantity. Earth Journal writer Ron Meador will moderate the Q&A session.

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