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Bill aims to make national water standards voluntary

Kate Raiford
Published: Friday June 16, 2006

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CHICAGO -- Half of the country's water systems are making a potentially hazardous switch, while a bill aims to make national safe drinking water standards voluntary, RAW STORY has learned.

The Small System Safe Drinking Water Act makes it voluntary for plumbing companies to comply with national standards. The introduction of the act announces that it's intention is to, "to prevent the enforcement of certain national primary drinking water regulations unless sufficient funding is available or variance technology has been identified."

If your water is tainted with lead, there isn't much you can do about it. The manufacturer probably won't be liable and probably can't be sued.

When plumbing manufactures use pipes containing lead alloys, which are cheaper than most other alloys, the pipes can corrode and react with a new water disinfectant, chloramine. Chloramine reacts with the pipes and lead leaches into household water.

An interview with the EPA about the chemical could not be arranged before press time.

Fifty percent of water systems are making the switch to chloramine from chlorine, said Marc Edwards, the Charles Lunsford Professor of Civil Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

"It's of quite a significant concern," he said of communities switching to chloramine. "The train is already going down the tracks. It's not even possible to have a discussion at this point. There is no slowing the train down."

Edwards concedes that it is difficult for water regulators and the EPA to know what to do. Careers have been devoted to the chloramine switch, he said, all with good intentions. It's hard for those in charge to admit the problem, let alone know what to do about it.

"No one ever considered the potential unintended consequences," he said. "It was not included in the cost benefits analysis."

Chloramine lead spikes are the exception, not the rule, he said. But even if 1 to 2 percent of communities have problems, it could cause enough damage to outweigh all of the chemical's benefits

In 2004, levels of lead skyrocketed in the Washington, D.C. water supply. The spike came after the city switched from chlorine to chloramine.

New chemical has mixed record

By itself, chloramine is not dangerous. In fact, it tends to reduce the amount of potential chemicals chlorine can produce in the drinking water, including carcinogens, said Dave Purkiss, general manager of water treatment and distribution at NSF International.

NSF, a Michigan-based independent nonprofit that test things like food and air, also tests the residential-plumbing equipment manufacturers voluntarily submit. About 80 percent of today's manufacturers, including most national brands, have their products tested by NSF and comply with local regulations, Purkiss said. He said the fears of chloramine are exaggerated.

When Washington, D.C. switched to chloramine, citywide lead levels increased to three times more than the legal limit. Lead levels are now at or below legal limits, according to an EPA report released this May.

The city didn't plan the switch correctly, Purkiss said, and the chloramine started to react with old, exposed layers of lead in pipes. "It led to a big increase of lead in drinking water," he said.

Marc Edwards said it is too soon to tell what should be done about chloramine, but recent studies do link it to high lead levels. He added that the situation--seeing a problem and doing nothing about it--worries him.

"This is just how the space shuttle disaster happened," he said. "I hope I'm being Chicken Little."

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Mr. Dave Purkiss and the Small System Safe Drinking Water Act as the Small Systems Safe Drinking Water Act.


 

 
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