Officials: Philly’s Water Is Safe

The water department says Philadelphia is nothing like Flint.

Photo by Morgan Burke, Creative Commons license.

Photo by Morgan Burke, Creative Commons license.

Philadelphia’s water is safe, city officials said Monday at a Council committee hearing on lead poisoning.

Water Department Commissioner Debra McCarty said that Philadelphia is not experiencing, and will not experience, a water contamination crisis like Flint, Michigan.

“Philadelphia’s drinking water is lead-free, and there are clear differences between Flint and Philadelphia,” McCarty said. She blamed Flint’s catastrophe on the fact that the city changed its water supply, which Philly has not done.

In some homes throughout Philly, especially those built prior to 1950, water is funneled through lead pipes. Even then, McCarty said, the water that comes into homes is safe.

However, McCarty said water can become contaminated with lead when it sits inside a home’s lead pipes for too long and corrosion occurs. She said that if residents flush their faucets — by letting the cold water run for three to five minutes before drinking — that can fix the issue. (Yes, this seems like a long time to us, too.)

Councilman Derek Green worried about sending mixed messages about the city’s water, considering that residents have also been told to turn their faucets off whenever they’re not using them in order to conserve water.

Officials conceded that lead poisoning is a problem in Philadelphia, but they said it is caused by lead-based paint in older properties. “Protecting children from exposure to lead is important to lifelong good health, because the effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected,” said Dr. Caroline Johnson, director of the city health department’s Division of Disease Control.

More than 10 percent of Philadelphia children tested in 2014 showed elevated blood lead levels. Although officials insist that lead paint, not water, is the problem, a report by the Guardian suggested that the way the city’s water department tests for lead exposure may lead to inaccurate results.

After McCarty and Johnson testified, Green asked what the water and health departments have done to educate the public about the dangers of lead pipes.

“That’s one of the things we realize we need to do more of,” McCarty said.

Green, as well as Council members Helen Gym and Cindy Bass, suggested that these risks have not been widely publicized. Gym, known for her fierce nature as an activist before joining City Council this year, was matched by Green and Bass in their extensive questioning of each witness.

Bass questioned McCarty’s opening remarks, including her statement that Philadelphia’s water is lead-free. The water in the city’s water main, which distributes water to homes, is indeed lead-free, McCarty reiterated.

McCarty also said that the water department is developing a program in order to help residents replace their lead pipes. It will be available sometime in 2016. But there’s a catch — it will cost residents between $1,500-$2,000 for the switch.

“If you’re barely making it, and we offer a program that says, ‘Well, we can do this great thing for you for $1,500 to $2,000,’ it may as well be $50,000,” Bass said.

There is currently no city or state funding to help low-income residents replace lead-service lines.

Homes were not the only topic of concern. The hearing also focused on protecting children by making sure that the water in schools and child care centers is tested for lead. Francine Locke, the Philadelphia School District’s environmental director, said its water is safe. Locke said that approximately 20,000 drinking outlets in Philly’s schools were tested and approved recently over a 10-year period.

Gym, however, was skeptical that all 20,000 drinking outlets met testing requirements. “Wait, so you had a 100 percent safety level?” she asked. Locke confirmed that each outlet tested below the lead threshold considered unsafe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

However, the district said Monday it would complete a full inventory of water fountains.

McCarty, meanwhile, said the water department plans on testing more homes for lead exposure in future years than it has in the past. In order to motivate more residents to agree to having their water sampled, she said, the city could provide a financial incentive to those who participate. She also said the department would expand the availability of zero-interest loans for homeowners who want to replace lead pipes.

“There is a lot of work to be done by the Philadelphia Water Department,” said Bass. “I came into this hearing thinking that the department didn’t have major issues. Coming out of it, I have many new questions. We need policies and efforts to address the ongoing issues of lead and water access in our city.”

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