Report: ‘Every Major US City East of the Mississippi’ Is Underreporting Heavy Metals In Its Water

Illustration for article titled Report: ‘Every Major US City East of the Mississippi’ Is Underreporting Heavy Metals In Its Water

Just when the news about lead poisoning the drinking water of Flint, Michigan, couldn’t get any worse. A report from The Guardian says many US cities are systemically and purposely downplaying the amounts of lead and copper in municipal water systems.

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A scientist who was part of an Environmental Protection Agency taskforce disclosed documents to The Guardian which shows how water boards are distorting tests to make their water appear safer, a practice confirmed by an anonymous source:

The controversial approach to water testing is so widespread that it occurs in “every major US city east of the Mississippi” according to an anonymous source with extensive knowledge of the lead and copper regulations. “By word of mouth, this has become the thing to do in the water industry. The logical conclusion is that millions of people’s drinking water is potentially unsafe,” he said.

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Specific cities named included Detroit and Philadelphia, and the entire state of Rhode Island.

The documents in question were obtained via FOIA by Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou, who sat on the Environment Protection Agency taskforce that recently proposed revisions on the federal rules for lead. Lambrinidou told The Guardian that more rigorous oversight will reveal more offenders: “There is no way that Flint is a one-off.”

This does not mean the Environment Protection Agency is being lax in its regulations, necessarily—rather it’s the agency’s guidelines that are being ignored by those who are contracted to administer the tests. For example, in Philadelphia and Michigan, testers were instructed by local water boards to run the water for two minutes or until cold before testing for lead, a practice called “pre-flushing,” which is seen as controversial.

Even if the incidences of lead and copper are not as high as the anonymous source claims, Lambrinidou’s assertion that Flint is not an isolated case is probably right. With corroded pipes to blame, there are many American cities suffering from similar infrastructural neglect. Pair that with a testing system that’s so easily gamed, and it may take years for some cities to figure out if their water is truly safe.

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[The Guardian]

Sarah Rice/Getty Images

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Alissa is the former urbanism editor at Gizmodo.

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DISCUSSION

This is not the EPA being lax in its regulations, its not abnormal, and not hidden in any way. This is pure tabloid journalism mixed with armchair psuedo-science.

I’ve done work testing water for the EPA, and flushing is not some under the table technique. It is a requirement of many testing procedures.

Heres a manual linked to from the EPA site on water testing.

http://www.newwa.org/Portals/0/Util…

The operative part:

Flush sample taps for a time sufficient to displace the water in connecting lines in order to obtain a representative sample from the distribution system component of interest. The typical flushing time is 4 – 5 minutes. The sample tap should be a cold water tap. In some cases, flushing may displace all the contaminant. You may want to consult with the IC before flushing.

The reason is stated right there, they are generally testing for the water quality in the distribution system. They can, and even with flushing sometimes do, catch samples of what you washed in your sink last last week that happened to splash into the faucet.

Husband washing greasy hands in the kitchen sink? Yeah that leads to false positive heavy metals testing that isn’t a problem with the city distribution system. They don’t want that.

The Flint Mi case is one of ill informed management not making the right decisions based on the people they served, not some country wide conspiracy. Many of those houses have lead pipes that they should probably change out. ..and if Bob Villa showed up with a fistful of cash they would, and would be required to. Those people don’t have that cash and use older systems because they generally worked for them as long as nothing changed in the greater system. ..the managers should have taken that into account, but didnt. Thats a failure that needs to be fixed, but it doesn’t mean the whole system is critically flawed.