POLITICS
04/04/2016 10:38 pm ET Updated May 03, 2017

Where's The Next Flint Water Crisis? Anywhere.

Why some cities still aren’t taking lead poisoning seriously.
GEOFF ROBINS via Getty Images

In the wake of the Flint water crisis, local governments nationwide have had to assure residents worried about brain damage and miscarriages that their drinking water meets or exceeds all federal standards.

Philadelphia officials tried to quell concerns about lead poisoning after activists, in a series of news stories and a public hearing, questioned the city's strategy for protecting the water.

"The Philadelphia Water Department is in compliance with the federal Lead and Copper Rule," John Quigley, director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said in an interview. "Period. Full stop."

Another city in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule, the nation's core regulation for lead in water: Flint, Michigan.

Complying with federal water regulation, it turns out, doesn't necessarily mean a city’s water is lead-free. All it means is that the amount of lead coming through faucets is beneath an arbitrary level. The rule essentially says that using lead pipes for drinking water is fine, even though childhood exposure to lead can cause permanently diminished intelligence and behavioral problems -- serious ones. Widespread poisoning from leaded gasoline has emerged as a plausible explanation for rising and falling crime rates in the second half of the 20th century.

Complying with federal water regulation, it turns out, doesn't necessarily mean a city’s water is lead-free. All it means is that the amount of lead coming through faucets is beneath an arbitrary level.

Excessive amounts of lead contaminated Flint's water after the city stopped buying water from Detroit and started pumping it from the Flint River in 2014. The state regulator told the city not to treat the water with chemicals that would have prevented it from corroding the city's pipes, even though doing so would have only cost a hundred bucks per day. Research later showed that the incidence of lead poisoning in Flint kids increased from 2.4 percent to 4.9 percent after the switch. The percentage was even higher in the poorest areas of the city, and the data likely understate the extent of the problem. Potentially 9,000 children younger than 6 were exposed.

After basically ignoring the problem for more than a year, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) began admitting the state had erred when it told Flint residents to drink brown water. He’s taken to calling the federal regulations of water lead "dumb and dangerous," a characterization that might be both politically convenient and true. Though Snyder's approval ratings have tanked amid constant criticism of his handling of the crisis, he has endeared himself to policy experts and activists who say a similar situation could happen anywhere.

Service lines made from lead connect water mains to homes in roughly 30 percent of the nation’s water systems, according to a recent survey by the American Water Works Association. America's national policy is not to replace the pipes. Instead, the strategy is to treat the water so it's less corrosive and less likely to pick up the lead. Even the Environmental Protection Agency, ultimate arbiter of the regulation, says it needs to be changed, and plans to put forward a draft revision next year.

Yanna Lambrinidou, a leading water policy expert and activist, served on an EPA working group tasked with recommending changes to the Lead and Copper Rule, which is promulgated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, a landmark water safety law first enacted in the 1970s. Last fall, she dissented from the group's recommendations because she said they wouldn't do enough to force utilities to replace lead pipes -- even though the recommendations said replacing lead pipes is the only way to make people's water safe from lead.

In February, Lambrinidou said she spoke with Snyder on a conference call about water regulation and that he seemed to have read her entire dissent.

"His questions reveal a depth and breadth of understanding few government leaders with a say on lead in water can claim to possess," Lambrinidou said. "It's remarkable to see."

Everywhere else they look, Lambrinidou and her allies say they see a pattern of denial.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and EPA head Gina McCarthy testify during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee he
Bill Clark via Getty Images
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and EPA head Gina McCarthy testify during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, March 17, 2016.

Early last month, the Philadelphia Water Department defended itself before the city council against criticism from Lambrinidou and others that the agency is essentially looking the other way when it comes to lead.

The Lead and Copper Rule requires cities that have lead pipes to collect water samples from a certain number of homes. The purpose of the monitoring is to make sure the water has been properly treated by the utility so it won't corrode pipes and other plumbing materials, such as fixtures or lead solder, which would result in leaded water.

If the level of lead in 90 percent of the samples is below 15 parts per billion, then the federal standard has been met. (Incredibly, the other 10 percent of samples can have any amount of lead.) The Lead and Copper Rule requires cities to get at least half their samples from single-family homes connected to lead service lines.

Here's where things get weird: Philadelphia has around 50,000 lead service lines. In the city’s most recent round of testing, in 2014, it sampled water from 134 homes, but only 45 of the homes had lead service lines -- far less than half. Ninety percent of the samples had less than 5 parts per billion of lead, well below the 15 parts per billion "action level" that could trigger mandatory pipe replacement.

Lambrinidou and other experts, including Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech civil engineering professor who helped blow the whistle in Flint, say Philadelphia is essentially diluting the amount of lead in its sampling pool, making the water seem safer than it really is.

"I can't see how, under any reasonable interpretation, they're meeting the law for selecting the worst case homes," Edwards told HuffPost.

The rule says water systems can resort to sampling water from homes without lead service lines if the service area contains an "insufficient" number of lead pipes, so long as other sample sites have some lead in their plumbing materials. Philadelphia officials say they did the best they could to get more samples from the 50,000 homes with lead service lines, but they couldn’t force people to cooperate with testing.

"Rest assured, we would love to have greater participation in these samplings," Mayor Jim Kenney told HuffPost. "But as in other cities, participation is voluntary."

"We send 8,000 letters out. We get a 10 percent response from that. Then, that’s when they go down even more," said Gary Burlingame, director of laboratory services for the Philadelphia Water Department, noting that the both the city and its citizens could do a better job. "People in Philadelphia have to better understand, that when we contact them about lead, their ears should perk up, they should pay attention and they should work with us."

Burlingame and state officials maintain Philadelphia is allowed to collect samples from fewer homes with lead service lines than the law seems to require. David Sternberg, a spokesman for the division of the EPA that oversees Pennsylvania, agrees.

The Lead and Copper Rule allows state water agencies "to accept sample results that include samples collected at less than the required percentage of homes with lead service lines if the water system cannot obtain samples from enough of these homes and provides adequate justification," Sternberg said.

Lambrinidou, who in January penned an open letter warning that Philadelphia's sampling instructions could artificially reduce the amount of lead detected in the city's water, was incredulous that the EPA gave its blessing.

"So now every utility can raise its hands and say, 'Poor us, we just can't obtain the samples?'" she said.

 

So now every utility can raise its hands and say, 'Poor us, we just can't obtain the samples?' Yanna Lambrinidou, a leading water policy expert and activist

 

A task force appointed by Snyder to investigate what went wrong in Flint found that the EPA's habit of letting water systems there and elsewhere bend the rules "served to mute its effectiveness in detection and mitigation of lead contamination risks."

Edwards said that if someone gave him a grant he could probably get hundreds of samples from high-risk Philadelphia homes himself -- something he actually did in Flint with a team from Virginia Tech. They obtained 252 samples last summer, and their analysis prompted Edwards to warn residents not to drink the water long before the government did.

Another key part of the Lead and Copper Rule requires water to be treated with chemicals that reduce the corrosion of lead service lines. The chemicals work by forming a thin coating, or "scale," on the inside of the pipes. Because they misread the rule, Michigan officials told Flint to just monitor the water instead of treat it to reduce corrosion when the city switched its water source to the Flint River. That's what caused the crisis -- the pre-existing scale eroded and bits of lead fell in the water, ultimately ending up in the blood of Flint residents.

State officials have essentially said their misreading of the Lead and Copper Rule was an honest mistake, but Edwards and his allies say it was a totally egregious one -- made worse by the fact that they continued to deny anything was wrong for 18 months.

Though the EPA tried to make Michigan treat Flint's water for corrosion, the agency didn't warn the public or cite Flint or its state regulator for violating the Lead and Copper Rule, despite pleas for it to do so from both outside and inside the agency. Emails released by congressional investigators show that Miguel Del Toral, an EPA scientist who had investigated Flint's water and found high lead levels earlier last year, begged his EPA colleagues in July to issue a "treatment technique" violation that would have notified the public.

"I very much disagree with not issuing a TT violation here," Del Toral wrote, adding that not doing so would "set a very bad precedent."

In October, a coalition of environmental groups petitioned the EPA to issue an emergency order to put a stop to an "imminent and substantial endangerment to human health." The EPA issued a memo a month later acknowledging "differing interpretations" of the Lead and Copper Rule that seemed to excuse Michigan's screwup. In January, amid a national outcry over Flint, the EPA swooped in with an emergency order that said the city and state efforts “have been inadequate to protect public health and that these failures continue." By then, Snyder had already approved the city's return to its previous water source in Detroit.

In other words, the agency in charge never said Flint broke the rules until it was way too late.

Flint resident Jerry Adkisson and his children Jayden, Austin and Amiya carry bottled water they picked up from a fire statio
Rebecca Cook / Reuters
Flint resident Jerry Adkisson and his children Jayden, Austin and Amiya carry bottled water they picked up from a fire station in Flint, Feb. 7, 2016.

Burlingame, like Lambrinidou, is a member of the EPA task force that has proposed changes to the Lead and Copper Rule. A noted water expert with a national profile, he suggested the response to the Flint water crisis has been a bit overblown.

"What we don't have from Flint is a peer-reviewed published study to look at the science of Flint," Burlingame said. "All we have is what the news media's reporting and some of the policy and management issues."

In fact, peer-reviewed research led by Flint pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha revealed Flint's water treatment failure corresponded to higher levels of blood lead in Flint’s children. But Burlingame said that the Philadelphia Water Department would wait for federal guidance before drawing any conclusions from Flint.

HuffPost asked Burlingame whether he believed it was possible for someone to suffer lead poisoning as a result of drinking water with lead in it. He said he couldn't answer, so HuffPost asked again: is it theoretically possible for someone to get lead in their body from drinking water that has lead in it?

"Can somewhere in the world someone drink a water that has a high level of lead that affects their blood? I guess so," he said. "Sure. That's what the papers tell us."

Epidemiologists say lead paint and dust are generally more common causes of lead poisoning than water, but the idea that consuming water with lead in it can result in elevated blood lead levels is not supposed to be controversial. Humans have known the dangers of leaded water for at least 2,000 years.

The fact that lead paint and dust are thought to be the more significant sources of lead exposure has been convenient for water utilities. The Washington, D.C. water department to this day won't admit anyone suffered lead poisoning as a result of contaminated water from 2001 through 2004, an episode Edwards has estimated was 20 to 30 times worse than Flint's. Officials in Michigan's health department convinced themselves it wasn't the water that increased the lead levels in Flint kids' blood in 2014, and they might have gotten away with it if the water hadn't had so many other problems that Flint residents were literally marching in the streets.

Dissolved lead is tasteless and colorless, and children who drink leaded water can't feel their IQ points disappearing. Even if someone has documentation of elevated blood lead levels, they can't prove where the lead came from or what symptoms it caused. Fortunately for Flint, the city's water was brown and funky from other contaminants, helping activists apply the political pressure that forced the state to admit it had caused a crisis.

Ryonona Harmon, 41, raised four children near 75th street and Haverford avenue in the Overbrook Park section of West Philadelphia. Her four kids went to local high schools. She works as a medical technician in nearby Paoli now that her children are adults. It never occurred to her to wonder whether her water was filled with lead.

“This wasn’t a big deal for me,” Harmon told The Huffington Post. “I expected the city to give me and my family a basic right like safe water.”

Harmon said that growing up, the only type of lead she thought of was lead paint. She said she has no idea if she's ever lived in a home with lead service lines.

“I had no clue I could have been using lead pipes then," she said. “If we want our water supply to be safe for our kids, everyone should have the same rights to get their water checked."

Dissolved lead is tasteless and colorless, and children who drink leaded water can't feel their IQ points disappearing.

Even if a public water system follows the regulations perfectly, there’s still a chance that lead will get into the drinking water.

A 2013 study of Chicago’s water supply by Del Toral suggested that routine sampling under the Lead and Copper Rule can miss massive amounts of contamination. The report suggested that "the existing regulatory sampling protocol under the U.S. Lead and Copper Rule systematically misses the high lead levels and potential human exposure."

The rule calls for residents to fill a one-liter bottle from a faucet after at least six hours without household water use, the idea being that water stagnating in plumbing and service lines will give a good picture of how much lead is leaching into the supply. A key finding was that contrary to prior assumptions, the first liter didn’t necessarily capture the most lead -- subsequent liters tended to have significantly more. 

The study also noted that construction projects such as water main replacement and even street work seemed to cause lead levels to spike in the water of nearby homes, apparently because physically jostling service lines causes lead particles to infiltrate the water.  

Chicago is in the midst of a campaign to replace its old water mains, but in its three-year monitoring cycle, the city hasn't gone out of its way to test water in the areas closest to the repair sites. The Chicago Tribune reported in February that of the 50 homes tested, only three were on streets that had a replaced water main.

In February, Chicago residents filed a lawsuit seeking class action status alleging that the city hasn’t done enough to warn people that street work could affect their water and significantly increased the risk of lead poisoning as a result. The lawsuit claims officials merely advised residents that the water “may shut off a couple of times.”

The dangers of street work have been well documented, including by an EPA panel that warned in 2011 of an elevated risk of lead poisoning in areas where lead service lines were being partially replaced.

Chicago Water Management spokesman Gary Litherland said the city warns residents about lead near water main replacement projects by sending them information packets that read: "it is important to flush your plumbing of any sediment, rust or metals, including any lead, to maintain water quality.” The lawsuit says the only warning the plaintiffs got was "buried" inside a single handout.

City officials have argued the EPA’s findings that street work can increase water lead are “far from scientifically established," though, as the lawsuit notes, other research supports the idea that physically disturbing a lead service line can cause problems.

"It must be a larger study and it must be more extensive,” Litherland said. “It was a small sample. More research needs to be done."

James Montgomery, an environmental science professor at DePaul University, says Chicago ought to do a better job warning people about street work affecting their water, per the EPA's study.

"If you don’t believe the results, then why don’t you commission your own independent scientific study?" Montgomery said.

For its part, the EPA said the construction findings were incidental and not the core reason for the study. And it suggested the study didn't show for sure that physically disturbing a lead service line caused higher lead levels in the homes where samples were taken.

"The U.S. EPA did not conduct sampling before and after the physical disturbances to the lead service lines at the homes that were sampled," an agency spokesman said, "so although we observed that the homes where the lead service line had been physically disturbed generally had the highest lead levels, we did not collect sampling data from prior to the disturbances to make a comparison between the pre- and post-disturbance lead levels." 

Flint resident Glaydes Williamson holds up contaminated water and hair pulled from her drain during a hearing on the wat
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Flint resident Glaydes Williamson holds up contaminated water and hair pulled from her drain during a hearing on the water crisis, Feb. 3, 2016.

Cities not only have to find homes with lead service lines, they have to tell people how to collect water samples -- and filling up a water bottle can be surprisingly controversial.

As a result of the national attention on Flint, the state of New Jersey took a second look at its sampling methods and last month told cities to make some changes. 

"For probably going back more than 10 years they've been handing out an instruction sheet that tells people the wrong instructions, to take the aerator off," Newark city spokesman Frank Baraff said.

An aerator is a little screen on the end of a faucet. Until now, Newark's instructions to residents taking water samples told them to "remove the aerator screen from the nozzle of the spigot pipe."

The EPA recommended that public water systems stop asking people to remove aerators prior to sampling in 2006, when a lead poisoning scare in Durham, North Carolina raised questions about the city's sampling methods.

"Removal and cleaning of the aerator is advisable on a regular basis," the EPA memo at the time said. "However, if customers are only encouraged to remove and clean aerators prior to drawing a sample to test for lead, the public water system could fail to identify the typically available contribution of lead from that tap, and thus fail to take additional actions needed to reduce exposure to lead in drinking water."

As for Newark's water, Baraff said 90 percent of samples had less than 10 parts per billion lead in 2015. Because Newark hasn't experienced high lead levels in several rounds of lead testing, the city is only required to test for lead every three years in just 50 homes, instead of annually in 100 homes.

Bob Considine, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the state might move to require testing more frequently than what the Lead and Copper Rule requires.

"It is something we are very strongly considering," Considine said in an email.

Newark's about face on aerators stands in stark contrast to what's been going on in Philadelphia and other cities. Philadelphia insists there's nothing wrong with telling people to remove the little screens on their faucets prior to collecting water samples, despite intense criticism from Lambrinidou and others.

“The science is not there to support aerators being on or off to make a difference in Philadelphia," Burlingame, of Philadelphia’s water department, said. “Aerator on versus aerator off, sampling with your left hand versus your right hand, is not going to make a difference about whether we are meeting the EPA action level or not.”

Quigley, the head of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, suggested the merits of aerator removal are beside the point -- the 2006 recommendation isn't part of the Lead and Copper Rule, so it doesn't matter whether it’s sound advice or not. Never mind that the rule itself wasn't good enough to prevent the Flint water crisis in the first place.

"We do not enforce recommendations. They're not law," Quigley said. "Our job is to enforce the law."

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