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Lead Contaminated Drinking Water Is Much More Prevalent Than You Think

Three thousand communities in the US have four times the amount of lead in their water as Flint—partly because of a misunderstood law.

In 2001, Washington, DC changed the chemical used to treat the city's water from chlorine to chloramine. The switch was supposed to limit byproducts in the water that arise during the disinfection process. It turned out, however, that chloramine also has the particularly powerful trait of corroding lead pipes, which allows the toxic metal to show up in faucets and drinking water.

Authorities from the water utility knew of the astronomical lead levels in 2001 but, for fear of repercussion, kept mum. It carried on for 3 more years, and as many as 42,000 children in the womb, or less than 2 years old, were exposed to extreme levels of lead, which can cause serious cognitive, and behavioral problems in children, as well as hearing, and weight loss, and fatigue. The DC water crisis from 2001 to 2004 is still considered by experts to be the worst such calamity in modern American history.

Since the DC water crisis, we've had lead catastrophes of varying scale, the most notable being in Flint, Michigan. In January of this year, as Flint was under a State of Emergency, the residents of Sebring, Ohio were informed that they had been drinking tap water that had been heavily contaminated with lead since August. Before that it was Jackson, Mississippi, and Brick Township, New Jersey, and Durham, North Carolina. A recent examination of lead testing by Reuters found 3,000 townships in the US that have double or quadruple the rate of lead poisoning that Flint, Michigan had at the height of its crisis.

The Lead and Copper Rule, created in 1991, treats lead as a shared responsibility between water utilities and consumers.

In spite of the widespread nature of lead contamination in the United States, communities all across the country continue to remain at risk, due to aged infrastructure and a poorly understood law.

Unlike all other drinking water laws in the US, which make water utilities the sole responsible party for taking care of a contaminant, the Lead and Copper Rule, created in 1991, treats lead as a shared responsibility between water utilities and consumers. In fact, water utilities are only responsible for making sure that their communities don't experience widespread and severe contamination, not necessarily that lead doesn't get in their drinking water.

Many city owned pipes are made of plastic, concrete, or metals like iron, steel and aluminum. The source of lead in drinking water is often plumbing that is technically owned by homeowners, such as service pipes. So water could be clean when pumping out of the treatment plant, but then foul up when it touches individual lead service pipes running into people's homes. Water utilities argue, then, that they're not responsible for lead plumbing inside of residents' houses.

Corroded lead pipes. Image: 84202/Pixabay

Yanna Lambrinidou, a medical anthropologist who has studied lead contamination in drinking water for years, and lived through the D.C. water crisis herself, described the law to Motherboard as a catch-22: "It's a shared responsibility regulation that fails to tell one of the two responsible parties that they have any responsibility, and in fact, gives them the impression that the other party is in full control of the problem."

"The rule is presuming that homeowners are somehow responsible for making the choice to have lead bearing plumbing installed in their homes."

Lambrinidou was part of a working group that examined long term revisions of the Lead and Copper Rule for the EPA's National Drinking Water Advisory Council. She dissented on creating a brand new one, but argued instead for tightening up loopholes on the existing law, and for more directly involving communities in the law's implementation. She argued that the law needs annual public education because most people have no idea where their water is coming from.

"It would be fair and moral to include residents in every town when it comes to lead in water because this arrangement affects everybody," she said.

Even though Congress banned lead pipes over 30 years ago, millions remain across the country, especially in older homes. As people talk about the little attention paid to crumbling infrastructure above ground—the infrastructure below ground, by comparison, is often ignored altogether.

Bruce Lanphear, a public-­health physician who has studied environmental lead poisoning since the 1990s, told the New York Times in August, "Everything is focused on short-term solutions, crisis thinking, the bottom line." But, he said, "Within the next 30 years, we're going to need to have replaced our entire water infrastructure."

The infrastructure below ground is often ignored altogether.

Like most things, however, updating water systems costs money. This is partly what drives officials not to report problems when they arise, or to try and employ one of the many different ways to game the system when testing for lead. The Guardian found practices like running the water slowly while collecting sample, or flushing out taps before tests—methods that conceal lead content—were all too common in 33 major cities east of the Mississippi.

Ultimately, a lack of public understanding of lead regulation, coupled with ragged water systems infrastructure, has created a dangerous scenario whereby corroding pipes are putting communities at risk, and the residents of those communities are unaware that chemical treatment of the water doesn't necessarily ensure protection.

Read More: Congress Has Reached a Deal to Send $170 Million to Flint

Battles over environmental regulation could become particularly pointed in the coming years, however, if President-elect Donald J. Trump's pick for EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, is approved by the Senate. Pruitt, an attorney general out of Oklahoma, close ally of the oil and gas industries, and climate change denier, has spent a career battling clean air and water regulations.

For thousands of communities in the country, that doesn't bode well for change.

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