Flint Crisis Puts U.S. Water-Testing Methods Under Scrutiny

Experts say weakness of federal water-sampling rules contributed to monthslong delay in identifying problem

Updated Feb. 4, 2016 12:43 p.m. ET

The water crisis in Flint, Mich., is leading to new calls to overhaul the main federal regulation aimed at protecting the nation’s drinking water from lead contamination.

The federal Lead and Copper Rule governs how utilities sample water for lead contamination, but a growing number of experts say it may underestimate the lead in cities far beyond Flint.

The rule came under assault during a congressional hearing Wednesday, as House members from both parties focused on the weakness of the rule and the failure of the Environmental Protection Agency to implement it.

“It has now become clear that the federal Lead and Copper Rule is outdated and inadequate to protect the public from exposure to lead, especially in communities with aging infrastructure, such as Flint,” Keith Creagh, interim director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, testified.

While the crisis in Flint was caused by the failure of local, state and federal officials to ensure that the city properly treated the water flowing to nearly 100,000 residents, the weakness of the federal water sampling rules contributed to the monthslong delay in identifying the problem, according to Mr. Creagh and others.

Flint may be one of the most severe cases of lead contamination of drinking water in a major U.S. city, given the exposure to thousands of children of high lead levels. But prior cases have occurred, including in Washington, D.C. in the early 2000s. Some experts say that if it weren’t for outside researchers conducting their own water testing of Flint homes, the problem would have never come to light there.

The EPA requires 68,000 public water systems serving 303 million people to test for lead in U.S. drinking water, the vast majority of the nation.

The utilities generally arrange for volunteer residents to collect water samples, which the systems then send to a lab. In the past three years, about 4% of the nation’s water systems reported lead levels above 15 parts per billion, a threshold that requires utilities to take steps such as optimizing a corrosion control plan to reduce the leaching of lead into the water from older plumbing, the EPA said.

For decades, lead was commonly used throughout the U.S. in drinking water pipes, especially in service lines leading from water mains to individual homes and the plumbing inside those homes, until the dangers of lead became clear, particularly how it can damage the developing brains of children.

In 1986, the EPA banned the future use of lead pipes, fittings, solder or other plumbing material above a low concentration. In 1991, the agency published its Lead and Copper Rule, which focused on minimizing contamination from lead service lines and plumbing put in before the federal ban.

In December, the EPA’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council, a 15-member committee of utility officials, regulators and others, identified a number of flaws with the current testing for lead.

For instance, the group said residents, who can be difficult to recruit, may not follow sampling instructions, leading to inaccurate test results.

Council member Chris Wiant, president and chief executive of Denver-based Caring for Colorado Foundation, which funds health projects, said the Lead and Copper Rule has “markedly reduced the potential for lead exposure from drinking water,” but added, “I think there are still risks out there that people need to be aware of.”

Mr. Wiant said the “real solution” is removing all lead service lines in the U.S., a massive undertaking that would require years and billions of dollars.

EPA spokeswoman Monica Lee said the agency will consider these recommendations and others, as well as events in Flint, as it develops proposed changes to the rule, which it expects to publish in 2017.

EPA officials have been aware of problems with the regulation’s water sampling methods for some time.
A 2013 study authored by EPA water experts found that changing the way samples were taken greatly affected the lead levels detected in several dozen homes in Chicago.
The regulation requires collecting the first liter to come out of the tap after a six-hour period of nonuse. But the researchers found that taking further samples after the first liter could lead to a higher reading, especially if those samples included water that had been sitting in lead service lines.
“Current sampling protocols will often considerably underestimate the peak lead levels,” the EPA officials wrote.
In practice, public water systems use sampling methods that can vary from one city to the next, and while the different procedures don’t violate the regulation, some of them can alter how much lead is found in water.
The Philadelphia Water Department, for example, tells homeowners to remove aerators from faucets before sampling, even though the EPA in 2006 advised utilities that they shouldn’t do so. Philadelphia also tells people to run water for two minutes before a six-hour nonuse period, according to instructions provided to the Journal. Seven of 134 homes sampled showed elevated lead levels in 2014, according to the department.
The practice of running water in Philadelphia and some other cities, known as “pre-flushing,” can clear dissolved lead and lead particles that have entered the system from lead service lines, distorting test readings because fresher water would show less dissolved lead, said Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor who now consults for Flint.
In Baltimore, the city’s Public Works Department directs residents to leave their water off for six to 12 hours before testing, and doesn’t tell them anything about running the water beforehand. Three of 52 samples tested last year had elevated lead levels, officials said.
Meanwhile, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department instructed homeowners in 2014 to run water for five minutes, and then not use the tap for six hours. The city’s most recent lead tests results showed the system to be within acceptable levels for lead.

All three of those cities were compliant with the Lead and Copper Rule, which allows up to 10% of sampled homes to surpass the 15 parts per billion threshold.

“I don’t see how you can call it scientific,” said Diane VanDe Hei, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, an industry association that represents the largest publicly owned water systems in the U.S.
Mike Dunn, spokesman for Philadelphia’s water authority, said most city residents face “virtually no risk” of lead in their water. But he said “we take any and all concerns about the safety of testing procedures seriously” and they are working with the EPA to see if they need to make changes.
The utility industry supports changes to the Lead and Copper Rule that would put greater emphasis on removing lead service lines, educating people more about the risks of lead in water and improving corrosion control.
“It’s not about the current rule failing. It’s about getting more risk reduction,” said Steve Via, regulatory affairs manager of the American Water Works Association, which represents 4,000 utilities that provide drinking water to 80% of the U.S. population.
In April 2014, Flint temporarily switched its water supply to the Flint River. But the water department failed to add the proper chemicals to keep the new water supply from corroding lead pipes and fixtures.
Lead levels rose to dangerous levels, and local authorities failed to notice for months.
Lee-Anne Walters, a Flint resident whose water tested as high as 13,500 parts per billion, said in Wednesday’s congressional hearing that she is outraged that the EPA continues to allow problematic testing under the Lead and Copper Rule.
She said she wants the agency to stop allowing pre-flushing and the use of small-mouth bottles—which forces water to be drawn at a slow flow rate, potentially reducing the amount of lead in test results—and to stop allowing utilities to put an upper limit on how many hours water can sit in pipes before sampling.
Stella Moore, a 76-year-old retired steelworker in southwest Baltimore, has participated in Baltimore’s voluntary water testing program for years. Her home, built in the early 1980s, doesn’t have high lead levels in the water, officials said. Ms. Moore said she tries to follow instructions carefully because “I want the test to be perfect.”
She always has had confidence in her water, she said, but the crisis in Flint has rattled her.
“All this stuff I hear on the news now, it scares you,” she said.


Used with permission from The Wall Street Journal, WSJ.com. Copyright 2016 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.