US Cities Are Underreporting Heavy Metals in Their Water Supply

January 23rd 2016

Some experts have called the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, one of the greatest drinking water disasters in U.S. history and now, new information obtained by The Guardian found that tap water troubles aren't limited to The Mitten State. Documents shared with the news outlet claim that the majority of cities east of the Mississippi River are underreporting the amounts of lead and copper in municipal water systems. They reveal that water boards in cities like Detroit and Philadelphia are using inaccurate water testing methods and avoiding guidelines put in place by Environmental Protection Agency. 

flint-brown-waterRon Johnson - youtube.com

These methods include encouraging testers to run tap water for several minutes to flush out lead from the pipes or even remove the filter from taps before conducting tests.

For example, according to the report, Philadelphia asks testers to “run only the cold water for two minutes” before taking a water sample. This practice of "pre-flushing" was also included in instructions given to residents of Michigan, in the cities of Grand Rapids, Andover, Holland, Detroit, and Jackson. Such strategies are thought to lower the amount of lead in water samples, making water appear safer than it actually is. 

Related: This Is What the Water in Flint, Michigan Looks Like

The Guardian points out that this approach to water testing could threaten states with water crises similar to that in Michigan, where a city of more than 100,000 people, predominantly poor and black, had been receiving lead-contaminated water from the Flint River. Flint has since been declared a state of emergency, and the lead-contaminated water could have devastating effects on the city's population of children, as lead can affect IQ and potentially result in learning disabilities. 

Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou of Virginia Tech recently shared evidence of what she calls "deceptive practices by city water authorities" after working on an EPA taskforce reviewing federal rules on lead and copper poisoning. Lambrinidou told The Guardian that more rigorous oversight could reveal more offenders. "There is no way that Flint is a one-off," she said. "There are many ways to game the system. In Flint, they went to test neighbourhoods where they knew didn’t have a problem. You can also flush the water to get rid of the lead. If you flush it before sampling, the problem will go away."

Related: Pearl Jam Just Donated Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars to Flint, Michigan

Lambrinidou added, "The EPA has completely turned its gaze away from this. There is no robust oversight here, the only oversight is from the people getting hurt. Families who get hurt, such as in Flint, are the overseers. It’s an horrendous situation. The system is absolutely failing."

It is worth noting that this report is not necessarily alleging wrongdoing by the EPA, but that its contracted workers aren't adhering to its guidelines for testing water.

Lambrinidou is not the only official concerned with the state of water and conduct of water tests in the U.S. Paul Schwartz, national policy coordinator of Water Alliance, has also cast doubts about water testing methods and the EPA.

"The industry’s own reports show that if large water utilities followed the EPA standard for sampling, they would routinely exceed the lead limit,” Schwartz told The Guardian. “The EPA has been in a very cozy relationship with the state regulators and the water utilities. They’ve allowed themselves to be captured and they haven’t followed the science. What we have is a recipe for a public health disaster that is much larger than what we’ve seen so far. It will take us years to get out of this situation.”

While there probably aren't water safety hazards on the same tier as that in Flint at this time, according to his latest report by The Guardian, toxic water might be far more common than we think.

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