It’s been a year since whistleblowers exposed the government negligence that led to very high levels of lead in the water supply of Flint, Michigan ― a scandal that public figures have said must never happen again.
The problem with drinking lead-tainted water is pretty clear: Just like lead paint, it can stunt growth and cause permanent brain damage in young children. Recognizing these dangers, the Environmental Protection Agency makes utilities conduct regular testing to ensure that drinking water contains the smallest amount of lead possible.
But the spokespeople for the water utilities serving 10 of America’s biggest cities were strangely coy when we asked if they thought someone could suffer lead poisoning due to drinking leaded water. Not a single one offered an unqualified “yes.”
It wasn’t a trick question. Here’s what Bruce Lanphear, an epidemiologist and expert on environmental health dangers, told The Huffington Post: “Yes, it is possible for children to develop very high blood lead concentrations from tap water, especially bottle-fed infants.”
None of the 10 utilities outright denied that lead poisoning from contaminated water is possible. But for whatever reason, only the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was willing to affirm that it was. A spokesperson for the department said that because the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have stated that no level of lead in children’s blood is safe, “we believe the answer to your question is yes.”
The city of Phoenix also deferred to the EPA in its answer, noting that the agency “has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at zero, because lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels.”
The “maximum contaminant level goal” is a bit of bureaucratic language derived from the complicated federal rule that tells utilities how to make sure drinking water is safe. It’s called the Lead and Copper Rule, and the EPA is currently revising it, which is a good thing: The rule is so weak that not even Flint got cited for a violation.
Under the current rule, utilities are allowed to ignore the “maximum contaminant level goal.” The rule only requires that they collect water samples from people’s homes at regular intervals and measure the amount of lead.
If they find levels higher than 15 parts per billion in over 10 percent of samples, they are exceeding the federal “action level” and can be required to replace some lead pipes. But if high lead is present in under 10 percent of the samples, the utility doesn’t have to do anything at all.
It’s also up to the utilities which homes are included in the sampling pool, which gives them a chance to dodge the action level by avoiding homes connected to water mains via lead service lines. That’s one of the many things that went wrong in Flint.
Scientists have found there is no “safe” amount of lead. Recent research suggests that even small amounts of lead exposure can increase the odds of health effects like miscarriages and IQ loss. But HuffPost used the federal action level in our questions to utilities, just so there could be no doubt we were talking about lead levels that utilities are already supposed to treat as legitimately dangerous.
Our question was straightforward: Do you think it’s possible for a person to get elevated blood lead levels by drinking water that has lead above the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion?
Apparently, many utilities don’t feel comfortable answering that question.
The New York City Department of Environmental Protection punted the question to the Department of Health. San Diego similarly deferred.
“As your question would need to be answered by a doctor or medical expert, San Diego Public Utilities is going to decline to comment on it,” a spokesman said.
A spokesperson for the San Antonio Water System deferred to public health experts even after HuffPost suggested that a simple “yes” would be a good answer to the question.
The San Jose Water Company also said it couldn’t answer. “As a utility, we are not involved in setting action levels for drinking water contaminants,” a spokesperson said.
It’s true that it is not a water utility’s job to set the standards or study the effects of lead poisoning. That work is left to medical professionals, epidemiologists and government public health officials. But utilities are the ones that have to enforce those limits and do the work required to keep lead out of water ― so it’s kind of weird they won’t even state unequivocally that it’s a problem.
A spokesperson for the American Water Works Association, a trade group for water utilities, said that “the focus of water engineers’ work is corrosion control to minimize the potential for lead to dissolve into drinking water ― not in health effects research.”
The entire premise of the EPA’s regulation on lead is that its absorption from water causes severe health problems. Human beings have known this since the Roman Empire. Scientists in the U.S. have known it since the 1800s. And, as stated above, it’s been a full year since the Flint water crisis, which brought widespread attention to the nationwide threat of lead pipes still in use in so many cities.
“The crux of all our problems with the Lead and Copper Rule arises from the denial by water utilities that lead in water has anything to do with adverse public health effects,” said Marc Edwards, a corrosion expert at Virginia Tech University who helped expose the Flint water crisis by independently sampling the city’s water.
Edwards has long had major beef with utilities and the government over this issue. He was the main author of a 2009 paper that exposed the damage done to children’s bodies by leaded water in Washington, D.C. from 2000 to 2004. Though city officials admitted in 2004 that treatment mistakes caused lead to leach from the city’s pipes, a CDC report that same year falsely suggested that nobody had suffered elevated blood lead levels ― and a local task force concluded “there is scant scientific evidence to suggest a direct connection between lead in drinking water and lead absorption into the body.”
Edwards’ 2009 paper proved the claim wrong, and CDC Director Tom Frieden admitted in 2010 that his agency’s earlier report “left room for misinterpretation and may have led some people to improperly minimize concerns about lead exposure and conclude that lead in the water had never been a problem.”
Dallas, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia declined to respond to HuffPost’s survey, but didn’t say why. To be clear, The Huffington Post has no reason to believe any of these cities have a specific problem with lead in their water. But there are somewhere between 6 million and 10 million lead pipes in use across the country, and they’re not distributed equally. Chicago has a lot, while San Antonio has very few. The faucets are potentially dangerous in any home that has a lead service line or lead plumbing materials.
Gary Burlingame, the director of laboratory services for the Philadelphia Water Department, shared his views on water lead poisoning for a Huffington Post story earlier this year. He had said the science of what happened in Flint hadn’t really been settled. HuffPost asked Burlingame repeatedly if he thought it was possible for someone to absorb lead in their blood from drinking water. He allowed that it might be theoretically possible ― somewhere.
“Can somewhere in the world someone drink a water that has a high level of lead that affects their blood? I guess so,” he said. “Sure. That’s what the papers tell us.”
Research indicates that lead paint and dust are primary causes of elevated blood lead levels, but the scientific literature has long shown that lead in water also contributes, particularly for formula-fed infants.
“Lead in tap water ― consumed in the home, offices, other worksites, and public buildings ― can be a particularly important source of lead exposure of young children, pregnant women, and other people,” stated an authoritative book on infant lead exposure published in 1993 by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
“There is nothing that says that a child drinking water with lead will not develop an elevated blood lead level,” said Jerome Paulson, an emeritus professor with the George Washington University school of public health. “The level that results from the exposure will depend on the amount of lead in the water, the age and size of the child and how long the ingestion goes on.”
Evidence of the dangers of leaded water keeps piling up. It was peer-reviewed research showing increased childhood blood lead in Flint that forced the Michigan government to admit its mistake. The CDC even duplicated the results with its own study. It’s odd that utilities serving more than 10 million Americans are unwilling to say this is possible.
“Their responses to the survey are consistent with their long-held talking points of refusing to accept any connection between lead and water and adverse health impacts,” Edwards said. “You’d think they’d be curious enough to study the literature, which is very abundant, that shows even modest lead in water exposure by today’s standards has an impact on children’s blood lead. The lack of curiosity is hard to innocently explain.”