Lax Rules Let Flint’s Poisoned Water Drip Through the Cracks

The EPA must make sure city water systems are following the rules designed to keep lead out of drinking water; Earthjustice is helping to get water testing kits to worried families.

Flint Michigan
As in Flint, Michigan, millions of people throughout the country drink water that passes through lead pipes. (Linda Parton/Shutterstock)

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News of the lead contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, has many people understandably worried about the safety of their own tap water. As in Flint, millions of people throughout the country drink water that passes through lead pipes. Lead is especially dangerous for children, fetuses and pregnant women. There are laws on the books designed to protect us from lead and other harmful contaminants in our water. In the case of lead, the most important regulation is called the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), which the EPA administers nationwide. Since there is no known safe level of lead in water, the explicit goal of the LCR is to minimize levels of lead at the tap as near to zero as feasible.  We rely on utilities and the government agencies charged with supervising them to make sure the rules are followed.

Read more about the crisis in Flint and Earthjustice’s work to advocate for stronger rules to prevent lead contamination in drinking water.

The LCR’s tap water monitoring program is one example of how our current system for keeping lead out of drinking water must be strengthened. The LCR requires utilities to test samples of tap water from homes at high risk of lead contamination. Testing provides data on the effectiveness of anti-corrosion techniques meant to prevent lead from leaching out of pipes and other plumbing fixtures, and it triggers public health safeguards if lead levels are too high. If more than 10 percent of water samples are above the LCR’s “lead action level,” utilities must take remedial action, such as warning residents and replacing lead service lines. Although the current LCR monitoring program has serious shortcomings, it does provide some important health protections when carried out properly.

In Flint, the utility did in fact collect tap water samples and conduct tests in a process reviewed and approved by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). But the city’s water did not officially exceed the LCR’s action level, even though many residents were exposed to dangerous amounts of lead through their tap water. There are several reasons for this apparent contradiction. One is that the MDEQ appears to have thrown out samples for which tests revealed high lead levels that would have triggered the “lead action level.” This sort of data manipulation undercuts the public health goals of the LCR and puts people at risk.

A second reason Flint’s tap water monitoring failed to sound the alarm earlier is the way that samples were collected. Many factors can affect lead levels in tap water, such as the rate of water flow, the temperature and the amount of time water has been stagnant in pipes. Because of this variation, the method used to collect samples matters a lot, and certain practices are known to minimize the amount of lead captured in a sample. These include using small-mouth bottles that can only be filled up slowly, removing the aerator attachment at the end of the faucet and “pre-flushing,” or running the tap for several minutes the night before filling sample bottles. Tap water samples taken using such methods do not accurately capture the amount of lead entering a family’s water and can lead to false assurances of safety. That’s what happened in Flint, where the utility and MDEQ gave residents small-mouth bottles and instructed them to pre-flush their taps before collecting samples.

This problem isn’t limited to Flint; utilities across the country continue to use similar sampling practices that underestimate lead levels. According to one study funded by the American Water Works Association, approximately 70 percent of water systems with lead service lines—providing water to as many as 96 million people—would exceed the lead action level if utilities used sampling protocols designed to more accurately capture true lead levels. The EPA has not done nearly enough to push states and utilities to adopt scientifically and ethically defensible sampling practices.

The EPA is required to overhaul the Lead and Copper Rule, and Earthjustice is working with a coalition of clean water and community health advocates to ensure that the new LCR reflects lessons learned from the failures of our current lead control system. Unfortunately, EPA officials say that the proposal for the new LCR will not be published until 2017, and it’s uncertain when the new rule would actually be finalized.

The promise of an improved LCR at an unknown future date is of little comfort to people wondering whether their tap water is contaminated with lead, which is odorless, tasteless and colorless even at dangerous concentrations. (The discoloration in Flint’s tap water is from rust and other substances sloughed off of corroded pipes). In the meantime, the EPA must do more to make sure that water systems are properly implementing the current LCR. The agency should issue guidance to states and utilities to maximize the effectiveness of corrosion control treatment, discourage bad water sampling practices and encourage better public education about lead contamination.

To help people who may be worried about lead in their own drinking water, Earthjustice is very pleased to be a partner in a new initiative by the Healthy Babies, Bright Futures Alliance (HBBF) to provide low-cost water testing kits directly to individuals and families. The testing kits will be evaluated using proper sampling methods by the same laboratory that uncovered the full extent of lead contamination in Flint’s water. The kits include accurate information about how to interpret test results, as well as additional steps you can take to protect your household. Although the erratic nature of lead contamination means that a single water test cannot guarantee that your water is safe at all times, getting your water tested is a good place to start. In the meantime we’ll continue fighting for a stronger LCR.

Carter Hall is a Senior Associate Attorney with the Clean Energy Program. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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