It's Not Just Flint: America Has a Major Lead-in-Water Problem

Though the government says no level of lead is safe, its regulations don't

LeeAnne Walters of Flint shows water samples from her home. Credit: William Archie/Zuma

EPA officials in Ohio on Monday banned the operator of a water utility in Sebring, Ohio, from going to work after the agency found he failed to tell residents that they had been drinking, bathing in and cooking with water containing unsafe levels of lead for months.

The situation in Sebring is, of course, drawing comparisons to Flint, Michigan, where scientists discovered unsafe levels of lead in at least 40 percent of homes after the city switched water sources.  

Virginia Tech professor Yanna Lambrinidou is part of the team that confirmed Flint's water was dangerous when local and state officials were still denying it. And she says it's not just the residents of Sebring or Flint who should be worried about the level of lead in their drinking water.

"If you're looking for parallels to Flint, there are 11 million homes in this country, at least, that are very likely facing a pretty severe lead-in-water problem, and they don't know it," Lambrinidou says.  

The reason for that, she explains, is that there are that many service lines — pipes that carry water from a utility's water main into private homes — made of lead across the country. Many utilities aren't even aware of them, she says.

That fact should trouble people, but, she adds, it's not the scariest thing. The thing people really ought to be concerned about, Lambrinidou says, is the fact that the water in Flint still, today, passes the federal government's test for lead and copper contamination.

"The sampling protocol that Flint used is to this day keeping it in compliance with the lead and copper rule, despite all the problems that we now know about," Lambrinidou says. "This is something that almost nobody knows, unless you're an expert on the specific regulation."

The rule is based on the premise that there is no way a water utility can conduct tests that would guarantee zero lead — the only safe level of lead, according to the federal government — in the water of every single home it serves.

There's always going to be some amount of lead in some amount of homes — it could be from the service line, or from lead solder used as glue in some pipes, from leaded brass plumbing, or a myriad of other sources. "Most homes in the United States are going to have some form of lead-bearing plumbing," Lambrinidou says.

Because the government accepts that general premise, it only requires utilities to prove that the water in 90 percent of the homes contains 15 parts per billion of lead or less. So, even though the government says no level of lead is safe, its regulations don't.

"What this means," Lambrinidou says, is that even when a utility is passing the federal test for lead and copper, "every, single home that it serves could have, in theory, up to 15 parts per billion lead coming out of its tap, and 10 percent of homes could have any amount of lead coming out its tap. Any — it could be thousands of parts per billion — and the utility would still be in compliance and release water quality reports telling people that the water is safe to drink."

If Flint still passes that test, it's not very reassuring to think that the water in your home passes that test too.

Lambrinidou's advice? Buy a filter. Everyone, but especially the most vulnerable populations — pregnant women and children under five — should be using a filter that is certified to remove lead, she says.

"Even people who live in areas with the most ethical water utilities that are doing absolutely everything right," Lambrinidou says, "ought to be thinking very carefully about taking routine precautions, even when their water utility tells them that their water is safe to drink."