Toxic Taps: Lead is still the problem

Long-form and video investigation of water pipe replacements that can cause a spike in water lead levels / 4503 words and 6+ minute video / Investigative Reporting Workshop and nbcnews.com’s Open Channel

By Sheila Kaplan and Corbin Hiar, with contributions from Hilary Niles* and Julie Stein 

* In addition to fact-checking and light copyediting on this article, I worked with a videographer on location in Providence, R.I., to interview local residents for an accompanying video.

Millions of Americans may be drinking water that is contaminated with dangerous doses of lead. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knows it; state governments know it; local utilities know it. The only people who usually don’t know it are those who are actually drinking the toxic water.

The problem stems from a common practice in which water utilities replace sections of deteriorating lead service lines rather than the entire lines, commonly known as partial pipe replacements. It is a course of action that can do more harm than good.

“It’s scary and the magnitude of this problem is huge,” said Dr. Jeffrey K. Griffiths, a Tufts University professor of medicine and public health, who recently chaired an expert panel advising the EPA on the problem.  “I didn’t realize how extensive the lead exposure still remained. … EPA is really deeply concerned about this …. This was not something they expected.”

Since the 1970s, lead has emerged as the most dangerous neurotoxin known to man, potentially damaging the developing brain and nervous system, causing life-long learning disabilities and other serious problems. It has been taken out of gasoline, removed from paint and banned from children’s toys. Yet practices developed to keep lead out of water, under an EPA rule, have backfired and can actually increase the hazard, a fact that led the agency to create Griffith’s group to study the latest science on the issue.

The problem stems from the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, a regulation designed to protect Americans from the nation’s network of aging lead water service lines, which connect water mains to customers’ taps. Most of these lead service lines were installed before the devastating effects of this heavy metal were fully accepted. Seeking to reduce the amount of this poisonous metal leaching into drinking water from old lead pipes, the regulation required utilities to test water from local homes for lead. If 10 percent of the samples exceeded 15 parts per billion, the utility was then ordered to try to reduce the lead contamination through chemical corrosion control techniques. If that failed, water utilities had to replace 7 percent of their lead service lines each year, or until follow-up samples showed the lead levels were reduced.

But after a review of recent studies and interviews with dozens of scientists as well as state and federal water officials, the Investigative Reporting Workshop found that the regulation has become a case study in unintended consequences.

“EPA tried to do something good and was thwarted. We should recognize that,” said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a preeminent lead researcher and professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, who served with Griffiths on the EPA Science Advisory Board’s Drinking Water Committee.

Full story online at Investigative Reporting Workshop.

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