Water Department Will Update Lead-Testing Methods

The Department said it will now follow federal guidelines after a recommendation from the state Department of Environmental Protection.



The Philadelphia Water Department announced in a press release last week that it will update the way it tests for lead to comply with the most current guidelines issued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Previously, the Department had said it would stick to its current method of testing, which doesn’t meet two of the EPA’s guidelines, until the EPA updated its legally binding regulations. That would allow the Department to keep its testing data consistent from year to year until the laws were changed, officials reasoned.

But now it has changed course, citing a May memo by the state Department of Environmental Protection that “strongly recommended” all water utilities comply with the EPA’s guidelines. Starting this summer, the Water Department will do a round of water testing following all the current guidelines. And it will continue to follow those guidelines during its mandated tri-annual testing next year.

The Water Department has been using the same testing method, which follows all regulations, since the 1990s. But it fell behind updated guidelines in 2006, when the EPA made a number of recommendations beyond what’s contained in the laws.

Those updated guidelines said that water utilities should keep aerators attached to faucets, rather than removing them as the Philadelphia Water Department does, because removing them could cause utilities to miss heightened lead levels. The EPA also recommended that water shouldn’t be “pre-flushed,” or run for several minutes prior to the six-hour period of non-use that’s supposed to come before testing.

The Water Department had continued to remove the aerators and suggest pre-flushing until now.

The Department said the basis of its change is the DEP’s updated guidelines, but there have been external pressures as well. Reports in The Guardian identified Philadelphia among cities that “cheat” on lead tests. The city is facing a class-action lawsuit over the lead issue. And a group of citizens started a campaign called the Philadelphia Unleaded Project, meant to help residents do independent testing of their water.

The Water Department maintains that the water in the mains is lead-free, and its tri-annual sampling has never shown lead levels that would meet the federal trigger for public action. The Department plans to test 50 homes using the new methodology this year, prior to the mandated sampling in 2017.

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