What’s in our water?

COLUMBUS, Ga. — Recent findings from a non-profit news organization in Georgia revealed oversight from some cities when it comes testing for lead in water.

“We shouldn’t worry about that. I drink a lot of water, my kids drink a lot of water, we’re outside a lot and so I don’t want to have to worry about that,” Joanie Horton said.

Moms like Joanie do it without thinking. Whether it’s grabbing a glass of water from the kitchen or using the bathroom sink to brush your teeth, we use water in our house every day. But have you ever thought about what might be in that water you’re drinking?

“What happened in Flint, Michigan got most people, most journalists and public health officials really re-energized about trying to find the dangers of lead,” Andy Miller said.

Andy Miller is now part of that effort. He’s the CEO and Editor at Georgia Health News, a non-profit news organization. In June, Miller, WebMD Senior Writer Brenda Goodman, Erica Hensley and Elizabeth Fite released a special report after reviewing more than 100 water systems in Georgia. The results were staggering. Water departments are supposed to test high-risk homes, but 58 departments tested low-risk homes instead. Plus, 49 of those utilities labeled those low-risk sites as high-risk, making it appear as though EPA testing guidelines were followed.

“One Demorest official said ‘Sometimes we get sloppy.’ We don’t know what was behind that mislabeling, but we do know many of them were mislabeled,” Miller said.

One reason departments mislabeled homes may have been to stay below the EPA’s max limit of 15 parts per billion for lead. Another reason: poor record keeping, which meant some water departments in Georgia didn’t know which homes were high risk. This problem occurred in Flint as well.

Part of the problem is many people, including Joanie, didn’t know water contained lead and it took the crisis in Flint for the issue to become widely known.

“I raised my kids in the early and mid-80s and so yeah lead in paint was a big deal but I never heard of it in the water,” Horton said.

Testing lower-risk homes wasn’t the only concern. A few water departments like the one in Albany, Georgia’s eighth largest city, tested businesses. The EPA allows this, but only if a department runs out of high-risk homes to test.

“It seems like on a state level our state administrators have made the choice to be more lenient with how they enforce the law,” Brenda Goodman said.

The law Goodman is referring to is the Lead and Copper Rule created by the EPA in 1982. It requires water utilities, in our case Columbus Water Works, to test high-risk sites that are vulnerable to having lead in water.

“This law is intended to protect children basically and communities were either ignoring it or just kind of cutting corners,” Miller said.

Homes are high-risk if they are supplied by lead service lines, have lead pipes inside the house or have copper pipes joined by melted lead solder.

“In the case of Columbus, we don’t have lead service lines so our target list were those homes built between 1983 and 1988 that have copper plumbing in the home,” Columbus Water Works Vice President of Information Vic Burchfield said.

During that period time, lead solder was allowed in copper pipes. Columbus is required to sample homes every three years. Columbus Water Works collected samples in 2016. The result: 2.7 parts per billion for lead, which is well under the max limit of 15 parts per billion.

But from the report from Georgia Health News, we know some cities across the state mislabeled low-risk homes or tested businesses instead of home. Does that problem exist in Columbus?

“In Columbus we have 100% residential sampling size. They were all high-risk homes. No mislabeling issues,” Burchfield said.

One reason Columbus tested so well is due to corrosion control. A process in which a coating is placed around a pipe to prevent rust and lead from getting into the water. An optimum amount of phosphate is added to the water providing a solid coating inside the pipe. In Flint, Michigan, no coercion control was used.

“My kids are good, but there are mothers and grandmothers elsewhere in the state that might not and my heart aches if we’re not doing due diligence to make sure our kids are getting the right resources,” Horton said.

Columbus is at the forefront in providing clean water to the people who call it home. Although testing lead in water isn’t a problem here, the issue is found throughout the state.

Andy Miller said there was legislation this year in the state’s general assembly to do mandatory testing of schools and day cares for lead. It passed in the state senate, but didn’t pass in the house.

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