The No-Bullshit Guide to How Philadelphia Tests for Lead in its Drinking Water
Last week, British newspaper The Guardian named Philadelphia among a list of U.S. cities that “cheat” when testing for lead in the water supply. The next day, a Seattle-based law firm filed a class-action lawsuit against the Philadelphia Water Department over its testing methods, and a group of private citizens launched the Philly Unleaded Project, which they hope will help residents do independent tests on their water. Then on Tuesday, the women of City Council unveiled a package of bills aimed at increasing lead safety in schools and in the water.
A casual headline-reader might think Philadelphia’s in the middle of a clean-water crisis. But is that really what’s happening? Here’s what’s behind the flurry of lead-related news.
There was a bona fide clean-water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
The world is on high alert over water safety since the crisis in Flint, Michigan, became international news. Flint is a majority-black post-industrial city about 70 miles from Detroit. When the city got into budgetary troubles, Republican Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to find ways to cut costs. One of the ways the new leadership found was to sever the contract with its water utility and enter a new one with a newly formed group.
Before the new group got up and running, though, the city had to start pulling water from the Flint River. Soon enough, the city was issuing boil-water advisories, and the local university found elevated lead levels in the water.
Residents, who were initially told the water was safe to drink, were naturally outraged. The chain of events was astonishing enough that the crisis became an issue in the presidential debates. So water safety has been on a lot of people’s minds.
The Philadelphia Water Dept. follows federal regulations — but not some updated guidelines.
The first thing to know about water sampling is that you always want to try to capture the worst-case scenario for contaminants in the water. That means collecting samples that are the most likely to be contaminated from the properties that are the most likely to be contaminated. If we’re going to get skewed results, it’s better to be safe than sorry, the thinking goes.
But the science on how to collect the worst-case results has evolved. The dominant thinking used to be that to get the worst-case sample, it was best to remove the little filter or aerator that’s screwed on to the end of the spigot, because that might catch some contaminants and keep them out of the sample. But as of 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency no longer recommends removing the aerators, because they can actually be the source of water contaminants.
In a memo released in February, the EPA reiterated that recommendation — it’s not a regulation yet — and made two others. For worst-case results, the EPA said, samplers should use wide-mouth bottles, which will capture the flow from a spigot or faucet turned on full-blast, rather than a slow trickle for a narrow bottle, which might leave out some contaminants. And they shouldn’t engage in “pre-stagnation flushing,” or running the water prior to the regulatory six-hour waiting period that’s supposed to precede any sampling.
So, three updated EPA recommendations that aren’t in the actual rules:
- Don’t remove the aerator
- Don’t flush the water before the six-hour waiting period
- Use a wide-mouth bottle to capture the full-power flow of water from the faucet
The Philadelphia Water Department follows the official regulations, but it doesn’t follow the first two of those updated guidelines.* That’s why The Guardian says that Philadelphia “cheats” in its drinking water sampling.
PWD wants to keep its data straight.
In an interview with Philly Mag last week, Gary Burlingame, the director of the bureau of laboratory services for PWD, said that the Department wants to follow a consistent sampling method so it can track its contamination levels in Philadelphia drinking water over time. It will be more than happy to comply with new regulations when they are adopted, he said, but switching methods prior to that would undermine the Department’s baseline data — the results of its sampling since the latest regulation was adopted in 1991. Plus, Burlingame said, there haven’t been any definitive studies to show that the new recommendations are likelier to capture worst-case results.
Philly Unleaded Project thinks independent sampling is in order.
The Philly Unleaded Project is the brainchild of urban planner Tony Spagnoli and lawyer Jonathan King. They connected in a Facebook group for urbanists, in a discussion about the Flint water crisis. Spagnoli said that they began talking about how they could do independent home tests, and King eventually got in touch with some researchers at Virginia Tech, who’d been involved in studying the water in Flint.
And they landed on a solution: The project would supply home tests to residents who want to examine their water, with instructions to follow the latest EPA recommendations for testing. They hope to get 200 residents to do the tests, with half of those coming from high-risk houses with lead service lines. They’re providing the tests at cost, $63, and encouraging participants to pay for a test that can be used in a low-income residence. The tests are designed to collect samples from the initial flush, when lead contaminants from the faucets and internal plumbing might be present, then a later flush that would test water further down in the system, perhaps water that’s been sitting in a lead service line, and then a final sample that comes from even further down in the system. The Virginia Tech lab will then test the results.
Spagnoli said that he doesn’t know whether Philly’s drinking water is any less safe than it’s purported to be, but that recent reporting shows the Water Department’s sampling methods are outdated.
“All we want to know is what’s happening in our homes, and if we can independently verify that, there’s no reason not to do that,” Spagnoli said.
The Water Department says it will do home tests for Philadelphia residents upon request, but the Virginia Tech researchers have been encouraging citizen groups to do independent testing in cities where water utilities don’t follow the latest EPA recommendations. Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou, an adjunct professor at VA Tech, said that public pressure is an important component in pushing public utilities to update their sampling methods. The Department’s concern over its data simply doesn’t cut it, she said.
“PWD’s excuse is tantamount to a scientist acknowledging that they are using a flawed testing method, but that they are committed to keep using this method in order to be able to compare one set of potentially flawed data to another,” Lambrinidou said.
So, is Philadelphia drinking water as clean as PWD claims?
The Philadelphia Water Department has sampled between 60 and 160 homes every three years since 1991, as required by EPA regulations. All samples since 1992 showed that less than 10 percent of sampled homes had lead in the water at levels above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. (If more than 10 percent of sampled homes exceed the action level, the utility is required to inform the public and take steps to reduce corrosion.)
Like other water utilities, PWD treats the drinking water in Philadelphia with orthophosphates, which are used to make the water less corrosive so that it won’t draw lead contamination out of service lines or sink fixtures. The water in the mains is lead-free, the Department says, and if people are worried about lead in their water, they can run the tap for a few minutes before drinking it in order to draw the water from the main supply.
The Water Department is in the best position of anyone to know what’s in the water and how high the levels of contaminants are — but what if you don’t trust them? Tony Spagnoli said he hopes the Philly Unleaded Project finds a wide range of resident samplers, quickly, and he hopes the sample doesn’t show elevated levels of lead. Lambrinidou said that the public is entitled to a water utility that follows the latest guidelines.
Councilwoman Helen Gym, who held a hearing on water safety in March and led a press conference Tuesday morning to introduce Council’s new lead-safety measures, said it’s time for the EPA to update its regulations, and for the Water Department to expand its testing.
“Certainly the Water Department has what they believe to be true, which is that the testing regulations show that they’re well within compliance and that there isn’t anything to worry about,” Gym said after the press conference. “But as our science upgrades, our testing needs to broaden.”
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Editor’s note: A previous version of this story reported that the Water Department doesn’t follow any of the EPA’s updated recommendations. The Department does in fact use wide-mouth bottles in its sampling. Philly Mag regrets the error.