Thousands of Iowans exposed to drinking water contaminated with lead


lead-pipe
Utilities stopped using lead pipes in water mains in the 1950’s, but copper service lines often contain lead that contaminate water if pipes are corroded. (Siddhartha Roy/FlintWaterStudy.org)

 

Jenna Ladd | December 20, 2016

More than 6,000 Iowans have been exposed to drinking water with levels of lead that exceed the 15 parts per billion the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers safe.

Following the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan this year, EPA began to investigate how states are monitoring and testing for lead in drinking water. According to a report by USA today, an estimated 4 million people live in communities were testing was performed improperly or skipped all together.

Per federal regulation, utilities with more than 50,000 customers must continually take measures to protect against pipe corrosion, which can cause to lead contamination. In contrast, communities with less than 50,000 people can stop protecting against contamination as soon as levels drop below the federal limit. Data from Iowa Department of Natural Resources show that 13 rural water systems in the state exceeded federal limits in the last six months. An additional five utilities failed to test for lead at all over this period of time.

The EPA requires communities with less than 50,000 people to perform 20 lead tests per water system twice per year. If those tests come back normal, the utility is allowed to test much less frequently: 10 tests at 10 separate locations every three years. Some towns with less than 3,000 residents can qualify to test every nine years. Lead contamination in drinking water can cause lowered IQ, irreversible brain damage, behavioral problems and language acquisition delays, particularly for children. According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, there have been no reported instances of children with elevated lead levels in their blood in the most recent 20 years.

Richard Valentine, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of Iowa, said, “I don’t think the regulation is adequate.” Valentine continued, “It’s like saying, ‘It’s OK if only 10 percent of your airplanes crash; you’ve got good safety.’ If you’ve got one failure, you’ve got one hundred (more). You’ve got to find out why, where and sample a whole bunch more times and do something about it.”

The town of Kalona was on the reduced-testing plan prior to lead tests performed in the community this September. Two of the ten private homes tested in the town had drinking water with lead levels that were three times higher than the EPA’s 15 parts per billion limit. Kalona must now double the number of lead tests performed on drinking water. Lead levels also exceeded federal limits in Council Bluffs, Shueyville, Churdan, Blue Grass and Livermore.

The EPA announced late last month that it will be reconsidering its lead regulations. Mary Mindrup is head of the EPA’s Region 7 drinking water management branch, which serves Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri.

Mindrup said, “The EPA has always been concerned about smaller systems just because the economics are different…than larger systems.” She continued, “But we want to ensure that regardless of the size of system, everybody is receiving water that is safe to drink.”

Mindrup said that the EPA will focus on improving lead management for small rural communities and increasing water infrastructure funding.

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