Friday, February 20, 2009

Does WASA's Compliance with Federal Regulations Mean that Your Water is Safe to Drink?

Recent revelations about the harm done to hundreds, if not thousands, of DC's infants and toddlers from the 2001-2004 lead-in-water contamination have raised new concerns about the safety of our drinking water today.

Public officials responded with a new wave of assurances. On Jan. 27, WASA told the Washington Post that "the most recent tests of the city's water show lead levels in the safe range." On Jan. 28, in a web alert, WASA's General Manager Jerry Johnson said, "I want to assure the public that District drinking water is safe and meets or exceeds every federal standard." Mr. Johnson delivered the same assurance on video (see below). On Feb. 1, the Chairman of WASA's Board of Directors wrote to the Washington Post that, "What people should know first and foremost is that DC drinking water is safe and meets or exceeds all federal safety standards." On Feb. 14, DC Attorney General Peter Nickles "warned against panic because officials have found the drinking water to be safe."

The question we have to ask is this: does WASA's legal compliance with the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) mean that the drinking water in every resident's home and every child's school does not contain concentrations of lead that can pose a health risk?

The answer is "no," and this is why:

Even though the District no longer faces the extreme lead-in-water problem of 2001-2004, serious questions remain about the methods by which WASA monitors our water for compliance with the LCR. It is because of these questions that the DC Department of the Environment is currently conducting independent testing of the District's water for lead. In other words, we are not yet sure that our drinking water actually meets federal lead safety standards, as WASA claims (we will write more about this issue later).

But even if WASA monitored our water properly and results showed that they were in compliance with the LCR, DC residents would still have no guarantee that the drinking water in their individual homes and schools is not lead-contaminated.

Here's the reason:
  • The LCR allows for 10% of homes in a water utility's monitoring pool to have lead-in-water problems of any magnitude. In 2006 and 2007, for example, 4.5% of the homes monitored by WASA had elevated levels of lead in the 1st draw sample, and 9% had elevated levels of lead in the 2nd draw (or "flush") sample. These high lead-in-water concentrations were obtained despite WASA's use of a protocol that required 10 minutes of flushing the night before sampling, a practice known to hide lead.
  • According to the EPA, the level of lead in drinking water below which there is no known or expected risk to health is zero parts per billion. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “for homes with children or pregnant women and with water lead levels exceeding EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion,” only bottled water should be used. WASA’s 2006 and 2007 compliance measurements show numerous 1st draw samples in the hundreds of parts per billion. These measurements represent lead-in-water levels citywide. The small number of homes with excessively high levels of lead in WASA’s targeted sampling could translate into potentially thousands of District residences with elevated levels of lead at the tap.
  • EPA law regulates only 1st draw water samples. 2nd draw samples, which are more representative of the water we use to drink and cook, do not count. If 2nd draw samples counted, WASA’s 2006 and 2007 LCR compliance monitoring data would have rendered the agency out of compliance with EPA regulations. Specifically, WASA’s July-December 2006 compliance data show that 13 of the 106 2nd draw measurements exceed the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion. Similarly, the agency's July-December 2007 compliance data show that 13 of the 101 2nd draw measurements also exceed 15 parts per billion. These data strongly suggest that lead in the water of thousands of District homes will frequently be elevated above the action level following an initial draw.
  • EPA's LCR does not cover drinking water in schools. This means that neither sampling, nor remediation of lead-contaminated school water is required by law. Schools that test the water do so voluntarily. Although lead-in-water levels at DC Public Schools are dramatically lower today than they were in 2007 due to the installation of water filters, some problems remain (see the 2008 PNA/Virginia Tech report).
DC government data in 2007-2008 show that contaminated drinking water continues to be either the sole or a contributing lead source for 9% of DC children with elevated blood lead levels whose water was tested for lead. This percentage is based on a sampling method that does not follow the standard EPA protocol and can miss lead.

If you want to be sure that lead in your drinking water is below 15 parts per billion, we recommend that you have your water tested by an independent EPA-accredited laboratory. Make sure that you take both a 1st and 2nd draw sample. Mail bottles back to the lab, requesting that they use 2% nitric acid in the first step (prior to the mandatory holding time of the acidified bottle), instead of the specified 0.15% nitric acid (pH < 2). Use of a stronger acid is allowed in the EPA protocol, and makes it more likely that lead particles will not be missed.

A premier water testing lab is the Environmental Quality Institute, at the University of North Carolina, Asheville (we have no ties to EQI, but it has been recommended highly by independent scientists, public health advocates, and government officials alike).

Video: WASA's General Manager Jerry Johnson assures DC residents that the water meets or exceeds federal lead safety regulation standards, 1/28/09.

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