Skip to content

Missed lead: Is central Pa.’s water testing misleading? By Julianne Mattera | jmattera@pennlive.com

Missed lead: Is central Pa.’s water testing misleading?

 

By  Julianne Mattera | jmattera@pennlive.com

Email the author | Follow on Twitter

on February 01, 2016 at 8:45 AM, updated February 01, 2016 at 11:27 AM

 

As Flint, Mich.’s lead-ridden water garners national attention, large water utilities in central Pennsylvania don’t appear to be facing a similar crisis.

But some do share a disputed, yet not uncommon technique in the sampling process, which has been cited as potentially skewing the lead readings in Flint’s water and masking the problem.

After surveying eight utilities serving parts of Dauphin, Cumberland, Adams, York, Lebanon and Lancaster counties, the most recent water quality reports showed 90 percent of the taps sampled had lead concentrations at 5.2 parts per billion or less — well under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb).

Lead poisoning can cause neurological and behavioral defects in children and long-term harm in adults. According to the World Health Organization, “There is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe.”

Charles N Haas, a professor of Environmental Engineering at Drexel University, said, in general, a level of 5 ppb would appear to be “adequate” and not cause for alarm. While evidence indicates that there’s no level that’s absolutely safe, Haas said serious effects begin to manifest at lead concentrations above the EPA threshold.

If water utility companies are sampling properly, the midstate’s lead readings don’t rise to the level of Flint’s water crisis, Yanna Lambrinidou, an adjunct professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Science and Technology Studies, confirmed.

But Lambrinidou — a colleague of Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor and water quality expert who helped expose Flint’s water issues — said if water samples are using protocols that are “known to miss lead,” the lead readings could be an underestimation of what’s really in drinking water.

 

Click here for Water Lead Levels graphic https://infogr.am/water_lead_levels

 

Lead and compliance

Systems must take action to control corrosion if the EPA’s 15 ppb threshold is exceeded in more than 10 percent of customer taps sampled, according to the Lead and Copper Rule. If that happens, the water supplier also must tell the public about measures they need to take to protect their health.

As of last week, when Lambrinidou spoke with PennLive, she said Flint remained in compliance with this rule because people took samples through a “flawed protocol” that missed high levels of lead.

MLive.com has reported that, last year, Flint’s water tested with lead concentrations of at least 11 ppb at 10 percent of the homes surveyed, according to the city’s tests, but Virginia Tech researchers ultimately found that Flint’s lead levels in drinking water exceeded federal thresholds.

Following a new round of water tests, local, state and federal officials on Friday said samplings from 26 homes showed lead levels that were more than 10 times the federal action level, according to MLive.com.

Months ago, children were found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood after the city stopped buying its water from the Detroit system and began using water from the Flint River, according to MLive.com.

The Guardian has reported that cities, including Philadelphia, have “advised residents to use questionable methods when conducting official tests for lead content,” including flushing pipes prior to letting the water sit. Lambrinidou, in a letter to Philadelphia residents dated Jan. 23, said such flushing methods also were used in Flint and “resulted in false assurances that lead levels fell within EPA standards.”

However, EPA spokeswoman Monica Lee said in an emailed statement that an EPA task force has advised Flint and Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality to remove prestagnation flushing from their instructions to samplers.

Three of the eight utilities and water service providers PennLive surveyed advised customers to flush their taps, allow their water systems sit for at least six hours unused, and then take a sample, according to sampling instructions.

Aqua Pennsylvania, which supplies water in Boiling Springs and Gettysburg, instructed samplers to flush the cold water for about 30 seconds. Pennsylvania American Water — which provides service to Cumberland, York, Dauphin and Lebanon counties — said to flush the tap “for a minute or two.” And York Water Company told customers to “flush the cold water tap as vigorously as possible for 1-2 minutes.”

While a page from a Pennsylvania Department of Environment Protection guidance manual provided by Aqua Pennsylvania said “water suppliers can encourage homeowners to flush the sample site prior to the six hour standing time requirement,” there is no mention of flushing in the Lead and Copper homeowner sampling procedures now on DEP’s website.

DEP was unable to clarify that discrepancy Friday.

Sampling instructions used in recent tests by the cities of Harrisburg and Lancaster, Steelton Borough Authority, and Suez, formerly United Water Pennsylvania, didn’t mention flushing. PennLive was unable to obtain Lebanon’s sampling instructions last week.

Experts dispute whether flushing water prior to allowing it to sit for six hours before sampling is a problem. Haas said it’s accepted procedure. But Lambrinidou says that, while the EPA has not banned it, it goes against the intent of the EPA’s monitoring requirement, which is to catch the worst-case lead in the highest risk homes under normal water use conditions.

“The pre-flushing cleans out the pipes the night before sampling. It’s a little bit like sampling for lead dust and vacuuming the room the night before sampling,” Lambrinidou said. “You risk not capturing worst case lead that under normal use conditions people are getting exposed to, which is the intent of the Lead and Copper Rule.”

Lambrinidou said when people are instructed to flush for 2 minutes or more the concern rises that customers will miss “the chance to capture high lead.”

But Haas said six hours is enough time for the water in a home to absorb lead in the line, and flushing the line with cold water before letting it sit allows the sampler to draw solely from the cold water line.

“Hot water systems may have other connections in there that could leach lead,” Haas said. “And most people don’t draw a glass of water from the hot water line.”

PennLive reporter Rachel Bunn contributed to this report.

 

 

  • PA-AWWA Recognizes Our Gold Sponsors

    Partnership for Safe Water

    PaWARN

     

  • Public Notification Providers

Find us on Facebook
Back to Top