Deceptive lead testing, water utilities and the EPA vs. citizen science 

Just got done reading this article from the Guardian and it is distressing

Guardian analysis reveals millions of customers were asked to used testing method condemned by the EPA which may flush out detectable lead content

Source: Water utilities serving American cities use tests that downplay contamination | Environment | The Guardian by  and .

The article is somewhat of a follow up from one in January by Oliver Milman in the Guardian: US authorities distorting tests to downplay lead content of water.  See Russell Neches’ microBEnet post about this previous story here: Flint may not be alone.

The article today seems to be reporting new analysis different from that in the January article “a Guardian analysis of testing protocols reveals.” But it is pretty unclear from the article which parts are new and which are just rehashing what is in the January article.  Regardless, the findings are distressing.

Basically the issue comes down to how water utilities instruct customers to collect water samples for testing.   And many many utilities give instructions that lead to significant underestimation of the amount of lead exposure.  Basically utilities are asking people to do things such as removing aerators, pre-flushing the water lines, using the wrong kind of sampling bottles, and sampling in the wrong way and at the wrong times (e.g., when the outside temperature is cold).  And these and other methods have been condemned by many groups including the EPA as being deceptive.

From the Guardian article:

The analysis comes on the heels of an EPA letter, which repeated earlier warnings to utilities not to use such methods, and Guardian reporting that revealed water customers in “every major US city east of the Mississippi” could be drinking water tested using questionable methods.

“It’s a staggering number, and it’s alarming and upsetting to hear,” said Yanna Lambrinidou, a Virginia Tech professor in the civil engineering department, about the number of Americans potentially affected by the tests. Lambrinidou is also an activist who has worked with the scientist Marc Edwards, who helped uncover Flint, Michigan’s lead-tainted water crisis.

“At the same time, it’s why we’ve been working as long and as hard we’ve been working on this issue — because we have suspected as much.”

The Guardian article then gives many examples of different utilities giving instructions that would likely lead to underestimation of lead contamination.  Who is to blame for this?  The Guardian quotes Marc Edwards, from Virginia Tech, as saying that it is the fault of both the utilities and the EPA:

Edwards, who has spent much of his time recently in Flint, Michigan, where the national guard has been giving out filters and bottled water, criticized both utilities and the EPA. He called the EPA’s failure to stop the practices “a sick joke played on an unsuspecting public”.

“Frankly, [water utilities] really like to report on the lower levels of water-lead they find after such trickery, even if the lead in water is dangerously higher when people are drinking the water,” said Edwards. “It is part of how they fool themselves, and others, that they are doing their job.

“In part defense of the utilities, EPA repeatedly refused to issue commonsense clarification of the issue until after the Flint debacle and the sample games became an international embarrassment,” he said. “Even though we know elevated blood-lead in Flint neighborhoods skyrocketed … Flint has never officially failed the EPA Lead and Copper Rule,” because of how homes there were tested.

This is a pretty damning assessment of water testing by utilities in the US and enforcement by the EPA.  Kudos again to Marc Edwards and others including the Guardian for pushing for exposure of this deception on exposure assessment.

It is unclear what is going to happen in this area.  Right now there is a lot of pressure for the EPA to do something because of the Flint crisis.  And the Democratic Debate is in Flint tonight so maybe there will be even more pressure.  But it sounds like there needs to be major change at the EPA and at the utilities in order to have any impact.

Hopefully independent “citizen science” water testing could be useful  throughout the country as it was and still will be in Flint.


See these related microBEnet posts too:



2 thoughts on “Deceptive lead testing, water utilities and the EPA vs. citizen science 

  1. The only microbes tested at water treatment plants are E. coli. They are used as a surrogate for all hazardous microbes.

    They test the water that leaves the water treatment plants. Lots of good research, some of it funded by the A. P. Sloan Foundation, has found that the water that reaches our homes and comes out of our faucets and shower heads or bath tub spouts is not sufficiently controlled by the testing at the outlet from the water treatment plant.

    That is simply inadequate. See research by Amy Pruden’s group, e.g. http://search.proquest.com/openview/d6d514aaeeff01163514ea8c99a24bd2/1?pq-origsite=gscholar, Norm Case’s notorious paper on microbes in shower heads (Leah M. Feazel, Laura K. Baumgartner, Kristen L. Peterson, Daniel N. Frank, J. Kirk Harris, and Norman R. Pace
    Opportunistic pathogens enriched in showerhead biofilms PNAS 2009 106 (38) 16393-16399; published ahead of print September 14, 2009, doi:10.1073/pnas.0908446106.)

    What is puzzling is what we can do about it at our homes where we have some control?

    Much of our exposure to microbes occurs in the shower where the water and its contents are aerosolized ( in the form of ultramicroscopic solid or liquid particles dispersed or suspended in air or gas). If you heat the water higher, it will use more energy. There is a trade-off here as there always is when we try to improve the quality of our indoor air and to be careful about unnecessary use of energy. The U.S. Dept of Energy recommends setting water heater to 120 degrees F. (48 C.).

    Turn the temperature up on the water heater to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Centigrade) which is considered sufficient to destroy Legionella bacterium and many other infectious agents. This Highlights the trade-off between human health and the energy use (and associated greenhouse gas emissions) as well as the cost of the energy bill we pay each month.

    The U.S. Department of Energy recommends setting water heaters to 120 degrees F. to save energy.

    This is a great example of the trade-offs we must make all the time between environmental health and personal health. I can only say, make it aware of the tradeoffs and choose as wisely as you can.

  2. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I live in Ithaca, NY where we are having very similar issues as those in Newark. The water in the city is fine but all schools in the district are above acceptable lead levels. The superintendent and the health department are saying that the lead readings are incorrect, they are high due to improper sampling. Goes very much against what the Guardian article suggests.
    The handling of the problem by the superintendent and local health department have been, how should I put it, well bellow expectations.
    Ironically this is the home of Cornell University; with the number of well-educated parents in our community, I was expecting a much bigger uproar.

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Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. My lab is in the UC Davis Genome Center and I hold appointments in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine and the Department of Evolution and Ecology in the College of Biological Sciences. My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis (see my lab site here which has more information on lab activities).  In addition to research, I am heavily involved in the Open Access publishing and Open Science movements.