Got lead in your water? It’s not easy to find out

October 27th, 2017 by Steve

, USA TODAY Published 4:14 p.m. ET March 16, 2016 | Updated 10:38 a.m. ET March 18, 2016

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — It seemed like a simple task: Make a few calls and figure out whether the tap water in my 136-year-old row house near the nation’s capital is contaminated with lead.

More than a dozen calls and two trips to Home Depot to buy drinking water testing kits, I still have few firm answers and little confidence that the water coming out of my tap is safe.

My experience illustrates how difficult it is for consumers to get meaningful answers about their drinking water — and why it seems that filtering my water makes sense going forward.

To be sure, it’s unlikely that any lead contamination coming out of my kitchen faucet carries the level of risk that residents of Flint, Mich., have been facing. But that doesn’t mean those of us living in other cities across the USA are safe — especially if our homes were built before 1986 when the Safe Drinking Water Act mandated significant reductions in the amount of lead allowed in solder and other plumbing components.

The problem: Even if your water company is in compliance with federal lead contamination regulations, it doesn’t mean the water in your home is safe.

Water that’s lead free coming out of the treatment plant can become dangerously contaminated as it travels onto a home’s property and passes through any pipes that are made of lead or that have lead solder or if it goes through fixtures containing lead. Lead leaches into the water and small chunks of solder can break off, even if, unlike in Flint, the water is being treated properly with chemicals to help control corrosion.

And under federal regulations, a water system is considered in compliance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule even if the utility’s tests find dangerously high levels of lead coming out of up to 10% of customer taps that it occasionally samples.

Extracting info from my water company

One of the biggest risk factors for lead-contaminated water is whether a service line made of lead connects your home to the water main out in the street, experts say. The EPA estimates about 7.3 million lead service lines now deliver water to customers nationwide, according to a report last year from a working group of the National Drinking Water Advisory Council.

In theory, water companies should have information about whether a lead service line has been used to connect your home into their water main. More than 20 years ago, water systems were required to assess what materials were used in their water delivery pipes.

And federal regulations require utilities to do limited, periodic testing for lead from the taps of customers with lead service lines.

But it was difficult to get my water company, Virginia American Water, to answer my questions about the prevalence of lead service lines in my historic Old Town Alexandria neighborhood — both when I called as a consumer asking specifically about the line to my own home and also when I called their corporate communications staff in my official capacity as a reporter for USA TODAY.

Spokespeople for Virginia American Water and its parent company, American Water, repeatedly and over several days refused to say how many lead service lines are in my neighborhood’s 22314 ZIP code. This area includes Alexandria’s historical district with numerous buildings dating to the days when George Washington and Thomas Jefferson walked the city’s streets.

The company would give only vague, citywide percentages: Of about 26,000 water line connections across all of Alexandria, fewer than 5% are made of lead. The company also wouldn’t answer questions about how many partial lead service lines the utility’s pipe replacement program left behind for property owners to deal with on their own.

I couldn’t get a straight answer.

And the City of Alexandria couldn’t help me with my questions, directing me back to the water company as the most likely source of answers.

Misinformation and delays

When I called Virginia American Water as a consumer asking whether my home’s service line was made of lead, the customer service representative initially said he couldn’t help me because the utility didn’t own the line to my house. Only because I had been researching the issue was I able to push back, making clear to him that what he’d just told me was only partially true.

The utility owns the portion of the service line that directly connects to the water main and extends part of the way to my house, I told him. He said someone would call me back.

Five days later, I still had no answers.

So I again called the water company and had a nearly identical conversation with the customer service rep:

  • What about the portion of the line that is owned by Virginia American Water?
  • What is your portion made of?
  • And was your portion of it at one time a lead line that your company has since replaced?

I insisted on talking with a supervisor.

A few hours later, I finally had an answer about my home: The company’s engineering files — still kept on paper, the water company rep said, showed my house had a lead service line until 1984. But in that year the company replaced the utility-owned portion of the line — just the segment that runs from the water main in the street to the water meter — with new copper pipe.

It was an important indication that at least part of my service line may still be made of lead. I would need to hire a plumber to find out for sure.

Trying to find a lab to test my water

So it seemed that getting my water tested might provide additional answers.

But that wasn’t simple either: How do I find a qualified lab? What kind of test should I ask for? How and when should the sample be collected? Is one test enough?

The EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline, 800-426-4791, refers callers to state agencies that certify labs for testing drinking water.

The agency in my home state of Virginia posts on its website a long list of certified labs. But when I started calling them, most told me they worked only with businesses and don’t do testing for individuals trying to check out the safety of their home’s tap water.

I eventually found one lab — based in Maryland — that would mail bottles to me as part of its standard home water-lead-test kit that involves collecting two samples. The cost would be $40, and I would get results detailing the amount of lead in about a week.

It seemed worth considering.

Meanwhile, an editor had mentioned seeing drinking-water test kits for sale at Home Depot. I found two types of tests hanging from shelves in the plumbing aisle near faucets and water filters.

The Pro-Lab Lead In Water Test Kit cost $9.99 and contained a vial and a mailing tube to send a water sample to a lab in Florida. An additional $30 fee would be required to have my water analyzed, the package noted.

The kit “utilizes an EPA approved laboratory method that will accurately and reliably test your water for lead contamination to 1 ppb,” the package said. The EPA action level for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion although health experts say harm can occur at much lower levels of contamination.

Before collecting a sample, the Pro-Lab instructions encourage users to register their test kits online to allow quicker viewing of test results. But the registration webpage wouldn’t load despite repeated attempts over a week.

The package, which is for a drinking-water test, includes an official-looking logo that says “IAC2 CERTIFIED.” But in smaller print, the logo says it is for the “International Association of Certified Indoor Air Consultants,” which wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with a water test.

Before spending any more money to get a sample tested with this kit, I wanted some answers from the company.

But for most of two days, I was unable to get multiple Pro-Lab officials to respond to my questions despite calls and emails. After I contacted Home Depot’s headquarters to ask what the retailer knew about the kits sold in its stores, Pro-Lab Chief Executive James McDonnell finally called me back.

He said he had been at a conference with his telephone turned off and that he doesn’t read emails.

McDonnell acknowledged that the certification group whose seal is on the Pro-Lab water kit works with home inspectors and doesn’t have expertise in water testing. He said the association endorses all of Pro-Lab’s environmental test kits, which is why the seal is on the package.

Home Depot spokesman Stephen Holmes said the retailer is looking into the certification seal on the product’s packaging. The Florida Attorney General’s Office also is reviewing the Pro-Lab Lead In Water Test Kit’s claims, spokeswoman Kylie Mason said.

Pro-Lab agreed to pay the Florida AG $20,000 in 2008 to settle concerns about language used in its promotion of a Lead Surface Test Kit, records show.

Pro-Lab, which online Florida records show is “no longer certified” as a drinking-water lab, outsources its water testing to another lab because so little of its business involves water tests, McDonnell said. That company, Florida Spectrum, is certified, records show.

McDonnell was unable to say whether the test that consumers are buying analyzes the water sample for both dissolved lead as well as lead particles. Florida Spectrum CEO Lyle Johnson said the samples are analyzed for both.

Paper strips and test tubes

The other test I purchased was the H2O OK Plus test kit, which cost $28.98 plus tax. It contained 23 drinking-water-quality tests, including for lead, bacteria and pesticides, that would provide instant results in my own home.

The product’s tests for lead and pesticides are run at the same time by putting two small, coated paper strips into a vial containing two small droppers full of tap water. Then after waiting for 10 minutes, similar to a home pregnancy test, the user looks at the pattern of lines that appear or don’t appear on the strips to interpret the results.

Although the four-step, illustrated instructions explained how to place and read the test strips,nothing in the kit’s instruction pamphlet directed how or when to collect the water sample. Through other reporting, I had learned by now that when water is sampled can greatly influence how much lead is flowing from a faucet.

Many experts and state agencies call for not using any water in a house for six to eight hours — no toilet flushing, no showers, or dishwashers and no turning on taps — before collecting the first 1 liter of water from a faucet to send for testing. This allows for the water to have been in contact with any lead plumbing for several hours.

So I was bleary eyed and in the kitchen at 5:30 a.m. to collect the water sample before my husband got into the shower. After 10 minutes, I pulled the test strips out of the water.

Maybe it was the early hour and the lack of coffee, but I had to re-read the instructions and look at the diagrams in the pamphlet several times to figure out what the results meant. Both the lead test and the pesticide test were negative.

But what did a “negative” test result really mean? Did it mean zero lead was in the water sample?

How low of a level of lead was the test capable of reliably detecting? And given the tiny size of the water sample examined, how reliable was this at-home test in helping me know whether my water is safe?

Unfortunately, I found nothing in the product’s information pamphlet to explain any of this.

CEO David Epstein of LabTech, the firm that has been selling the H2O OK Plus test kit since 2015, said in an interview that the tests are highly accurate when used properly. They now are sold in about 4,000 retail stores nationwide, he said.

But, when asked how much confidence a consumer should have that their water is safe if the test is negative for lead, he stressed: “They’re intended to be screening tests. They’re not intended to certify that water is safe or unsafe.”

Still, they can detect very low levels of lead and are more convenient for consumers than shipping water samples off to a lab, he said.

Epstein said another company, Silver Lake Research Corp. in California, developed the test-strip technology that is used in the H20 OK Plus test kit and other similar kits other companies sell at major retailers and online.

Mark Geisberg, Silver Lake’s director of research and development, said the lead-test strips work just like a pregnancy test. But instead of detecting the presence of a hormone, they detect the presence of lead atoms.

If the sampled water contains at least 15 ppb of lead — the EPA’s regulatory standard — the strips will give a positive test result, he said.

The strips are very accurate and he said that the company estimates the rate of false negative and false positive results is less than 1%.

But the strips have an important limitation, I learned.

They detect only lead that has been dissolved in the water, Geisberg said. They don’t detect “particulate” lead — the presence of tiny grains of the toxic metal that experts say pose a significant health risk if consumed.

Although the company has tested the strips successfully, Geisberg said no EPA or other government agency verifies or certifies these kinds of test kits. Company officials wish they could get that certification, he said.

Despite gaining a better understanding of the test-strip technology, it was still unclear to me how much confidence I should place in my single negative lead test result.

So I asked Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor whose independent testing in Flint revealed significant lead contamination and who several years ago investigated lead contamination in the District of Columbia’s water system.

“You can test your house six times and it doesn’t mean you’re safe,” Edwards said. Even if all of those tests — and more — show no or low levels of contamination in the water, if the house has any lead plumbing, particles of lead can break off at any time.

Rather than rely on testing, which may give a false sense of safety, Edwards said people living in homes with risky plumbing should assume a hazard and take action to prevent exposure, just as people manage the risk in homes with lead-based paint.

“Unless you’re in a house built after 1986 or with plumbing that’s been replaced and you also know you don’t have a lead pipe in front of your house, you should have concern about drinking water that has passed through a lead straw, which is what a lead service line is, a pure lead straw,” Edwards said.

The most protective and cost-effective solution is to install a filter that can remove lead at the tap, he said. Money can be saved by using the filtered water only for drinking and cooking.

While lead is harmful to all people, filtering water is particularly important for pregnant women, infants being fed formula mixed with water, and small children, he said.

“That is the most economically sound solution and the most protective. And, I’m afraid, as long as we have lead pipe, that’s the solution that at-risk groups should be adopting,” he said.

So now I’m off to research home water filters. Wish me luck.

For the full article click HERE.

Filed under: General, Lead Testing, North American Markets

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