Report: Philadelphia’s Water Test for Lead Among Worst in U.S.

Philly is one of seven cities that uses three faulty water-testing methods, according to the Guardian.

Photo by Ted S. Warren/AP

Photo by Ted S. Warren/AP

In a Guardian investigation that claims at least 33 cities across the United States use water testing “cheats” that potentially conceal dangerous levels of lead, Philadelphia ranked among the worst-performing cities.

In February, the Environmental Protection Agency reemphasized that three faulty testing methods can avoid the detection of lead — and Philadelphia is one of seven cities that partook in all three methods, the Guardian reports.

According to the newspaper, Philly is also one of 20 U.S. cities (including Chicago, Boston, Detroit and Milwaukee) that used the same water-testing methods that brought about criminal charges against three government employees in Flint, Michigan, in what was one of the worst public health catastrophes in the country.

The Philadelphia Water Department has maintained that the city’s drinking water is safe. “Philadelphia’s drinking water is lead-free, and there are clear differences between Flint and Philadelphia,” Water Department Commissioner Debra McCarty told a City Council committee in March.

The Guardian first raised questions about Philadelphia’s water testing methods in January — and Philadelphia magazine’s Holly Otterbein reported on the issue in February — but recent data is concerning yet.

The EPA and the Guardian address three particular testing methods that can avoid the detection of lead. The investigation claims city officials in Philly asked employees to test water in their own homes and engaged in “pre-flushing,” a method the EPA says clears lead from home plumbing prior to conducting a test.

It’s a practice that the EPA has warned cities against, because it can portray lead levels to be lower than they really are.

The Guardian also reported that Philadelphia officials engaged in two other lead-distortion methods, one of which occurs when officials intentionally pour water slowly into sample bottles so as not to dislodge lead from the pipes.

The other involves the removal of “aerators” — small metal filters at the tips of faucets that can collect lead particles and make lead detection more prevalent. In Durham, North Carolina, a lead poisoning case was missed by the water department, which routinely removed such filters.

The Philadelphia Water Department, however, says that taking off the aerator is an accepted practice. “Removing the aerator when obtaining a sample is the approved protocol that we have been using since 1992, and is based upon our experience that the removal of the aerator allows any lead particles in the plumbing to be collected in the sample, thus capturing a worst-case scenario,” department spokeswoman Joanne Dahme told Philly Mag in February.

In response to the Guardian investigation, many water departments also said the EPA had failed to issue clear guidelines on water testing in the past, the article states.

Follow @ClaireSasko on Twitter.

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