Just when the news about lead poisoning the drinking water of Flint, Michigan, couldn’t get any worse. A report from The Guardian says many US cities are systemically and purposely downplaying the amounts of lead and copper in municipal water systems.
A scientist who was part of an Environmental Protection Agency taskforce disclosed documents to The Guardian which shows how water boards are distorting tests to make their water appear safer, a practice confirmed by an anonymous source:
The controversial approach to water testing is so widespread that it occurs in “every major US city east of the Mississippi” according to an anonymous source with extensive knowledge of the lead and copper regulations. “By word of mouth, this has become the thing to do in the water industry. The logical conclusion is that millions of people’s drinking water is potentially unsafe,”he said.
Specific cities named included Detroit and Philadelphia, and the entire state of Rhode Island.
The documents in question were obtained via FOIA by Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou, who sat on the Environment Protection Agency taskforce that recently proposed revisions on the federal rules for lead. Lambrinidou told The Guardian that more rigorous oversight will reveal more offenders: “There is no way that Flint is a one-off.”
This does not mean the Environment Protection Agency is being lax in its regulations, necessarily—rather it’s the agency’s guidelines that are being ignored by those who are contracted to administer the tests. For example, in Philadelphia and Michigan, testers were instructed by local water boards to run the water for two minutes or until cold before testing for lead, a practice called “pre-flushing,” which is seen as controversial.
Even if the incidences of lead and copper are not as high as the anonymous source claims, Lambrinidou’s assertion that Flint is not an isolated case is probably right. With corroded pipes to blame, there are many American cities suffering from similar infrastructural neglect. Pair that with a testing system that’s so easily gamed, and it may take years for some cities to figure out if their water is truly safe.