Drink Up: US cities cheating on water tests to hide dangerous lead levels

Jun 03, 2016 12:00 AM

At least 33 American cities used tactics to make lead levels in drinking water appear lower than they actually are.

Cities including Boston, Portland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, Miami, Atlanta told residents to run their water slowly and let it run for 3 or 4 minutes before testing. Three city officials in Flint, Michigan, received felony charges for giving similar instructions.

Marc Edwards, a scientist from Virginia Tech who helped uncover the contamination, said that telling residents not to test their water until it had been run cold for several minutes skewed the results.

Edwards said "The differences in the tests are profound. If Flint had followed the test protocols, people would have immediately got instructions on how to keep themselves and their children safe." He added that, "Because of the smoke-and-mirrors testing, Flint is meeting the standard even as national guardsman walk the street. This shows what a sham the EPA has allowed its tests to become. They are condoning cheating."

Water departments in New Hampshire and Michigan were told to draw out testing as long as possible so they could conceal and resample results revealing high levels of lead. Some cities would not release lead pipe maps, denied knowledge of the location of lead pipes, or neglected to test the required number of homes. City employees in Chicago and Philadelphia were asked to do their own household testing.

Some cities claim that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) testing guidelines are unclear. The EPA’s instructions currently read:

"If lead concentrations exceed an action level of 15 (parts per billion) … in more than 10% of customer taps sampled, the system must undertake a number of additional actions to control corrosion. If the action level for lead is exceeded, the system must also inform the public about steps they should take to protect their health and may have to replace lead service lines under their control."

Flint resident Melissa Mays is part of a group lawsuit with the Natural Resources Defence Council and the American Civil Liberties Union claiming that the city’s misleading water-testing instructions exacerbated her and her family’s medical issues.

"These tests are unrealistic" She said, "who runs their faucet for five minutes before going to bed if they want to drink the water the next morning? They have been using a loophole and people have got poisoned," she said. "The city has changed the testing but the state hasn’t. We want the state to knock it off and do the right thing. The EPA also needs to close these loopholes in the lead and copper rule. All of my family are anaemic. We’ve tested positive for lead and copper. We have liver problems because of the toxins in our systems and breathing issues, too, because metals are released when we have showers."

Edwards says the implications for American cities go beyond issues of clean water.

"If they cannot be trusted to protect little kids from lead in drinkng water, what on Earth can they be trusted with? Who amongst us is safe?"

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