Lead poisoning the drinking water of Flint is the worst possible disaster. It’s a breakdown of urban systems that could’ve been avoided. It’s an instance of smarmy politicians lying to their constituents. It’s one of the scariest stories I’ve had to write about in some time. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust the water coming out of your tap.
Hearing Flint residents talk about undergoing blood draws to test for lead, and being counseled on how to stay healthy after long-term lead exposure, is devastating. When I learned that parents are still too afraid of contamination to bathe their kids, I wasn’t surprised—when will they not be?
Then I started to worry, too. As an American, a new mom, and an evangelical drinker of Los Angeles’s finest, I had to know: Is my hyper-optimistic allegiance to tap water misguided in light of what we’ve seen in Flint?
I spent a week trying to figure this out, and the short answer is no. But you should have some basic information about where your water comes from and how your city is testing it.
Last year I wrote a story that begged Americans to stop drinking bottled water. It hinges upon the fact that we have some of the cleanest, safest water anywhere on the planet:
Clean, safe drinking water that flows freely out of our faucets is a feat of engineering that humans have been been perfecting for two millennia. It is a cornerstone of civilization. It is what our cities are built upon. And over the years the scientists and hydrologists and technicians who help get water to our houses have also become our environmental stewards, our infrastructural watchdogs, our urban visionaries. Drinking the water these people supply to our homes is the best possible way to protect future access to water worldwide.
Naturally, whenever there is an instance where clean, safe drinking water doesn’t flow freely from our faucets, I hear from plenty of people who tell me these instances are why they drink bottled water all the time. What if? They ask. And that’s a fair question.
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) passed in 1974, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reviews water regulations every six years. The next review is scheduled to be completed this year.
Most of the stories you hear about water not meeting these regulations in the US are precautionary—a boil order issued when sewer lines are compromised during a natural disaster, for example. Occasionally you’ll hear about toxins accidentally entering the water. People who live in rural areas and rely on groundwater wells might see their water tainted with pesticides or other industrial chemicals leaching into the soil. But the majority of these incidents don’t happen with municipal water systems.
“Most of our water systems are publicly owned and operated and doing a great job,” said Mary Grant, the Water for All campaign director for the Food and Water Watch. “What we’re seeing is a federal decrease in funding, so our systems are faced with aging infrastructure, especially communities in Northeast and Midwest that have lead service pipes that need to be replaced.”
The problem in Flint was caused not only by aging infrastructure but also by a series of budget-driven decisions to change the water source from Lake Huron, via Detroit, to the Flint River. That also included a bad call about which kinds of chemicals to use to treat the water, to prevent the new, dirtier water source from corroding Flint’s lead-based pipes.
Lead is a tricky contaminant because it’s everywhere: in our pipes, in our plumbing, in our faucets. There is no “safe” level. But the biggest concern, from a drinking water perspective, are old service lines—not just the city’s pipes, but residential ones, too. In 1991, the EPA instituted something called the Lead and Copper Rule, which established new regulations for detecting and removing lead and copper in drinking water. (The EPA didn’t comment by publication time for this story.) However, even with these rigorous guidelines, it turns out these regulations aren’t always being followed.
This EPA graphic promoting the Safe Water Drinking Act illustrates the risks to our drinking water
For almost two years, Flint’s own water testing neglected to detect alarming lead levels, which highlights a separate problem with US testing methodology. Scientists claim that in Flint, and elsewhere, the EPA’s rigorous guidelines aren’t being followed, and that sampling methods are dramatically underestimating the amount of lead in urban water systems. That’s the assertion of Marc Edwards, Yanna Lambrinidou, and a group of researchers from Virginia Tech, the same team that first helped identify the problems in Flint.
I asked Lambrinidou, a medical ethnographer who served on the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule task force, to give me an example of something she’s seeing during testing which the EPA explicitly says not to do. “The EPA requires that you allow the water to sit so it absorbs any lead from plumbing during those stagnation periods,” she told me. Some testing guidelines recommend running the water for several minutes or until it runs cold, which is called pre-flushing. “Flint was assuring its people that they were testing and not finding high lead,” she said. “Then Virginia Tech did the same testing but didn’t pre-flush. There was a palpable difference.”
A page of sampling instructions from the Philadelphia Water Department, annotated in red by Lambrinidou with practices that go against the EPA’s guidelines
But why would anyone do that? Lambrinidou made a good point: These agencies are under the gun to save money at any cost. Alerting consumers to potential lead contamination could put a city on the hook for costly repairs or a replacement of service lines. This gaming of the system is more frequent than you might expect; it may have happened again this week in Ohio.
I asked Lambrinidou about the claim that the US has the safest and most rigorously tested water in the world. “It is a noble claim and that should be the goal,” she said. “But it does us a disservice to make claims like that without asking for evidence to support these claims.”
So what happens if you do find elevated levels of lead—can cities really fix that? In fact, Edwards and the Virginia Tech team were the whistleblowers when Washington, DC faced a similar crisis over a decade ago. Due to excessive pipe corrosion, and another bad decision to substitute one anti-corrosive chemical with another, lead levels in some homes were found to be 83 times higher than the EPA’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion. Residents weren’t informed until six months later.
One of those residents was Mae Wu, an attorney for the health program at the National Resources Defense Council, which filed the lawsuit this week to force Flint to replace its pipes. DC has gone to great lengths to not only make necessary infrastructural improvements, Wu said, but also to educate residents about their water. “The new head of DC’s water is out in public, here on the ground, walking the streets every day,” she says. “It’s been ten years, but people in DC know to be a little more cautious.”
A video from 2014 promoting the safety and improvements of DC Water’s system, part of a large campaign around water quality
Wu lives in a 95-year-old house with old pipes, which she knew put her family at higher risk. So she sent her water to a certified lab to test it and, not surprisingly, some lead showed up. Wu consulted the National Sanitation Foundation’s (NSF) list of filters certified to remove lead, and a bunch of other potential contaminants as well. It made sense to install one as a precaution. So yes, she still drinks the tap water, but she filters it first.
But this is the other troubling thing about lead. The proposal in Flint to replace all lead service lines only fixes half the problem. The city’s pipes can be replaced with federal or state money, but homeowners also need to replace the lead pipes on their own properties. This is why low-income residents are disadvantaged in any city suffering from high lead levels—they can’t afford to upgrade.
It’s not just homeowners who can’t afford to retrofit their drinking water infrastructure. In 2008 it was revealed that the water in schools across the Los Angeles Unified School District tested high for lead. The schools promised to replace the lines. But then the recession hit, and instead of replacing pipes, schools disabled or removed drinking fountains. Students became dehydrated because they couldn’t afford the bottled water sold at school.
Protecting public water sources is important because they’re the ones being used by children and lower-income families—the populations most at risk, said Evelyn Wendel, the founder of advocacy group WeTap. “We need to pay close attention to the process of keeping our tap water publicly available with reliable drinking fountains in schools and parks,” she said. There is progress being made: California’s Assembly Bill 496, which signed by Governor Jerry Brown last year, requires that free, fresh water be available in schools, and that schools upgrade and maintain water infrastructure rather than shut it off.
WeTap has created an app to map public water fountains and worked to design new water stations with the city that will become part of LA’s urban landscape and make clean water part of LA’s civic pride.
What happened at LAUSD was unsettling to me, not only because shutting off water access was such a backwards solution, but because it felt frighteningly like some kind of dystopian future, like society was moving towards a two-tier semi-privatized water system. And this problem is only going to get worse. In many California communities this year, wells ran dry due to overtaxing of groundwater by agricultural interests. Beyond lead and other contaminants, our water security is increasingly endangered by drought, or superstorms, or sea level rise.
When my daughter was old enough to drink water I filled her sippy cup from the tap without thinking twice. Another mom raised her eyebrows. “You give your baby tap water?” Yes I did, and I still do.
But there’s a caveat. We recently moved into a 104-year-old house. The pipes are newer than that, but after what I’ve learned this week, I want to have them tested. We still drink tap water, but until I get this data about my own home, I’m filtering it first.
Should you trust your tap water? Water varies so much between cities that I can’t answer that question for you. But I can tell you the questions you should have answered so you can feel confident about drinking from your tap. We have to keep demanding these answers from the people who supply our water to us. We can’t be afraid of our water, but we have to be vigilant.
My daughter’s now a year old and her first word, in fact, was agua. She has never had a sip of bottled water in her life. When you ask her where water comes from, she doesn’t point to the fridge, or a filtered pitcher, she points to the kitchen sink. I’m committed to making sure it stays that way.
What to do if you’re worried about lead
- Check the EPA guidelines and CDC guidelines on lead so you understand what the dangers are, how to check for signs of contamination, and some basic safety precautions. The EPA recommends lead levels below is 15 parts per billion (pbb), but if you have kids you want numbers lower than that.
- Find your city’s testing guidelines. I asked the Los Angeles County Department of Health, and they recommended reviewing the annual report from my water company. The CDC has a guide to interpreting this information, which is called a Consumer Confidence Report. Your water company is required to release this information to you.
- Test your own tap water. Most municipal systems will do this for you, for free. If you don’t trust the utility, independent groups will test for a nominal fee. My utility doesn’t test but recommends certified testers through the state’s Water Resources Control Board.
- If you live in an older home, test it for lead. Lead was used for pipes, and until 1978 it was also used in paint, which can flake off and be ingested. The EPA estimates that 87 percent of homes built before 1940 have lead-based paint.
- Some filters, namely gravity-fed filters, can remove lead to EPA specifications. NSF has an entire drinking water site where you can check on the effectiveness of your filtration device—or figure out if you need one at all.
- Test your kids for lead. If your family is at risk from any of the aforementioned situations, your doctor will probably recommend a simple blood test each year.
Top image by Chris Carlson/AP Photo
Follow the author at @awalkerinLA