Continued from PART 1
Research suggests that exposure to even low levels of arsenic can pose health risks over the long term. A 2014 study in the journal Environmental Health found an association between water with arsenic of 5 ppb or greater and a 5- to 6-point IQ reduction in children.
Two states—New Hampshire and New Jersey—have lowered their arsenic limit to 5 ppb, citing warnings from studies. The EPA itself even sets its “maximum contaminant level goal”—the level below which there is no known or expected risk to health—at zero for arsenic.LEAD
The Phillipses, in Texas, were especially fortunate to have installed a filtration system because the results of their unfiltered tap test showed high levels of not only arsenic but also lead, at 5.8 ppb. (CR’s follow-up tests of the couple’s filtered water showed trace amounts of lead and levels of arsenic and PFAS well within CR’s recommended limits.)
The risks of lead, and problems with how water utilities test for it, became a national concern when news of the water crisis in Flint, Mich., exploded in 2015. Scientists and the EPA agree that there’s no safe exposure level of lead. But taking into consideration the feasibility of achieving lower levels, the EPA says utilities have to take significant steps to lower lead levels—including replacing lead service lines—only when 10 percent of samples from homes in their service areas exceed 15 ppb.
Consumer advocates say those EPA regulations are problematic—a reality underscored by the testing results of water being piped into a condo owned by Stephen and Robin Newberg in New Britain, Conn.
Lead typically works its way into drinking water through lead pipes that feed people’s homes or in the home’s plumbing itself. That underscores the need for more robust residential water testing, including samples from far more homes than currently required, experts say.
While New Britain’s annual water quality report for customers indicates that its average lead level is 6 ppb, the Newbergs’ results showed a concentration of 31.2 ppb, more than double the EPA’s action level of 15 ppb.
Stephen Newberg, a former postal worker, says he drinks filtered water and his wife drinks bottled water, so he’s not personally worried. But the 66-year-old sits on the board of his condo, and he’s concerned about the possibility of the heavy metal being in his neighbors’ water. He plans to raise the issue at an upcoming meeting. The results caught him and his wife off guard: “The lead really did surprise us,” he says.
Ramon Esponda, New Britain’s deputy director of public works, says that the city complies with the EPA’s lead regulations, based on its 2020 tests, which found an average lead level of 2 ppb. Esponda says that results of a single sample may be thrown off by new fixtures, recent plumbing work, or other factors. After this article published, Esponda told CR the city retested the Newbergs’ water and found lead levels of 3 ppb. CR’s experts say lead levels are indeed known to vary, but the fact that the Newbergs’ earlier tests showed high levels remains concerning.
The installation of new lead service lines—pipes that connect a water main in a street to individual buildings—was banned in 1986. But an estimated 3 million to 6 million homes and businesses nationwide still get water through older lines that contain lead, according to EPA estimates. An untold number of homes have plumbing fixtures made of the heavy metal. Exposure can especially pose risks in children, such as reduced IQ and behavioral problems.
The Newbergs’ results were the only ones in CR’s tests to be above the EPA action level. But almost every sample had measurable levels of lead, and health experts emphasize that no amount of lead is safe.
Erik Olson, senior strategic director of health and food at the NRDC, says the Newbergs’ results illustrate several problems with how the EPA regulates lead. One is that water systems may test for lead only once every three years, and smaller systems can get waivers to test every nine years. Another is that the sample sizes are generally small.
“Even in a large city, they may only test 50 homes,” Olson says. Systems are supposed to test homes that have lead service lines or plumbing and fixtures, but that requirement is often skirted, too, he says. “There’s very little oversight, and they may not be testing the highest-risk homes.”
CR’s Dickerson agrees that the EPA needs to require municipalities to take many more samples from taps inside homes, to better protect consumers.
The EPA, in the waning days of the Trump administration, finalized changes to the lead regulation that would require testing in elementary schools and established new rules regarding the steps water systems must take when lead is detected.
But the NRDC, the NAACP, and other groups recently sued the EPA, saying those steps didn’t go far enough, and urged the Biden administration to improve on them. In particular, the NRDC says, the revised rule would leave lead service lines in place for decades.
EPA spokesperson Drinkard, citing the pending litigation, says the agency has no additional information to share.THE FIX
People seeking cleaner drinking water do have some options for reducing their exposure to dangerous contaminants. (See "How to Test and Treat Your Drinking Water.") But consumer advocates say that fixing the problem shouldn’t be up to consumers.
“Americans shouldn’t have to navigate bureaucracy and be forced to make significant investments in order to access clean tap water,” says Brian Ronholm, CR’s director of food policy. “The implementation of strong standards would ensure everyone has access to clean water, regardless of income levels.”
Legislation passed last year by the House of Representatives would have authorized $22.5 billion to replace lead service lines across the U.S., according to the NRDC, but the bill died in the Senate. The NRDC called for the Biden administration and Congress to enact legislation requiring the expeditious removal and replacement of lead lines. “The only way to really solve the lead problem is to remove lead from the system,” Olson says.
Congress is also focusing on PFAS. In January, a congressional task force urged the Biden administration to take immediate steps to address PFAS contamination by, among other things, directing the EPA to phase out any uses for the chemicals deemed “non-essential,” to finalize a standard for PFOA and PFOS, and to accelerate cleanup.
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., a member of the task force, responded to the findings from CR’s tests, saying they show that “we do not have any time to waste as we battle these toxic chemicals.” She renewed her call for PFAS to be banned and designated as hazardous. “Congress must pass my PFAS Action Act and take other concrete action to protect our drinking water, our environment, and our public health,” Dingell says.
CR agrees that a standard must be set as soon as possible. “The burden shouldn’t be on consumers to monitor contaminants in drinking water,” Ronholm says.
Pittsboro’s Jim Vaughn says that while government and industry debate, residents of his town are left with unsafe water. “The town that has the polluters in it, they’re getting their water from upstream, so what’s their impetus” to fix the problem, he says. “The ones downstream have no power over the ones upstream to force them to do that. I just don’t think it’s fair.”How Consumers Helped Us Test America’s Tap Water
onsumer Reports teamed up with our members and readers of the Guardian US to investigate the nation’s drinking water. From a pool of more than 6,000 potential volunteers, CR statisticians winnowed the group to 120 people representing a cross section of the country and the water systems that service it. That included 12 samples from each of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 10 jurisdictional regions. Testers were chosen to provide a mix of urban and rural locations, as well as small and large water systems. We were particularly interested in PFAS, chemicals notorious for both their health risks and their perseverance in the environment.
Each participant received test kits for PFAS, as well as for arsenic, lead, and other contaminants, plus a video showing how to collect the samples. That included gathering samples of water before it went through any filter or treatment system that participants might have in their homes. When tests were complete, we sent volunteers advice tailored to their results.
We can’t draw conclusions about any specific water system, because results from one location on a single day don’t necessarily reflect a system’s overall quality, but together the results provide powerful insights into problems faced by the nation as a whole. See test results for each location (PDF).
“While much of CR’s testing is done in our labs with our scientists, projects like these need real people,” says James Dickerson, PhD, CR’s chief scientific officer. “We are grateful to the readers who helped and shared their stories with us.” Learn more about how you can participate in future projects.Editor’s Note:
This article has been updated to include the results of tap water tests taken by the city of New Britain in response to CR’s findings from the home of Stephen and Robin Newberg in New Britain, Conn. received after publication. This article also appeared in the May 2021 issue of Consumer Reports magazine. Reporting in North Carolina for the Guardian was supported by the Water Foundation.https://www.consumerreports.org/water-quality/how-safe-is-our-drinking-water-a0101771201/