TESTS FOR CITIES, RURAL SUBDIVISIONS AND EVEN SCHOOLS AND DAY CARES SERVING WATER TO 6 MILLION PEOPLE HAVE FOUND EXCESSIVE AND HARMFUL LEVELS OF LEAD.
Melissa Hoffman, 40, expresses her concerns about the high lead levels found at her children’s school, Caroline Elementary School, during a town hall meeting March 3, 2016, in Ithaca, N.Y.
(Photo: Romain Blanquart, USA TODAY NETWORK)
While a harsh national spotlight focuses on the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich., a USA TODAY NETWORK investigation has identified almost 2,000 additional water systems spanning all 50 states where testing has shown excessive levels of lead contamination over the past four years.
The water systems, which reported lead levels exceeding Environmental Protection Agency standards, collectively supply water to 6 million people. About 350 of those systems provide drinking water to schools or day cares. The USA TODAY NETWORK investigation also found at least 180 of the water systems failed to notify consumers about the high lead levels as federal rules require.
Many of the highest reported lead levels were found at schools and day cares. A water sample at a Maine elementary school was 42 times higher than the EPA limit of 15 parts per billion, while a Pennsylvania preschool was 14 times higher, records show. At an elementary school in Ithaca, N.Y., one sample tested this year at a stunning 5,000 ppb of lead, the EPA’s threshold for “hazardous waste.”
“This is most definitely a problem that needs emergent care,” Melissa Hoffman, a parent in Ithaca, forcefully pleaded with officials at a public hearing packed with upset parents demanding answers.
In all, the USA TODAY NETWORK analysis of EPA enforcement data identified 600 water systems in which tests at some taps showed lead levels topping 40 parts per billion (ppb), which is more than double the EPA’s action level limit. While experts caution Flint is an extreme case of pervasive contamination, those lead levels rival the 400-plus of the worst samples in far more extensive testing of around 15,000 taps across Flint. The 40 ppb mark also stands as a threshold that the EPA once labeled on its website an “imminent” health threat for pregnant women and young children.
Even at small doses, lead poses a health threat, especially for pregnant women and young children. Lead can damage growing brains and cause reduced IQs, attention disorders and other problem behaviors. Infants fed formula made with contaminated tap water face significant risk. Adults are not immune, with evidence linking lead exposure to kidney problems, high blood pressure and increased risks of cardiovascular deaths. The EPA stresses there is no safe level of lead exposure.
Most Americans get their drinking water from a fragmented network of about 155,000 different water systems serving everything from big cities to individual businesses and school buildings. The EPA determines that a system has exceeded the lead standard when more than 10% of samples taken show lead levels above 15 parts per billion. It’s called an “action level” because, at that level, water systems are required to take action to reduce contamination. But enforcement, which is implemented state by state, can be inconsistent and spotty. Some 373 systems have failed repeatedly, with tests continuing to find excessive lead in tests months or even years later, the EPA data shows. What’s more, the systems have widely varying levels of financial resources and staff training.
Amid cotton fields in Lamesa, Texas, for example, tests last year showed lead contamination more than seven times the EPA limit at Klondike Independent School District, which serves 260 students in a single K-12 building. “Some things just slip by,” said the school superintendent Steve McLaren when pressed about skipping a round of testing in 2014. In a tiny school system, McLaren said leaders “wear a lot of hats.” At times he’s served as principal and bus driver, in addition to being superintendent and in charge of the drinking water system. The school replaced drinking fountains, and plans to replace its entire water system next fall. McLaren said he’s concerned about how high lead levels might affect students and understands the need for action. But he said, “Our kids are strapping and healthy, and they’ve been drinking this water all their lives.”
The testing required by the government can include samples from as few as five or 10 taps in a year, or even over multiple years. The system is designed only to give an indication of whether homes or buildings with lead pipes and plumbing may be at higher risk of lead leaching into water. Even the biggest water systems in cities are required to test just 50 to 100 taps.
The limited and inconsistent testing means the full scope of the lead contamination problem could be even more widespread. People in thousands more communities served by water systems that have been deemed in compliance with the EPA’s lead rules have no assurance their drinking water is safe from the brain-damaging toxin.
“This is just a case where we have a rule that’s not been adequately protective,” said Lynn Goldman, a former EPA official and dean of George Washington University’s school of public health. “The entire design of the regulation doesn’t tell you about your own water.”
Drinking water typically isn’t contaminated with lead when it leaves the treatment plant. It becomes contaminated as it travels through lead service lines on individual properties and lead plumbing fixtures inside homes. At best, the EPA’s rules and testing are a sentinel system, alerting officials of the need to treat their water with anti-corrosion chemicals. Doing so reduces, but does not eliminate, the lead in water reaching the tap.