National water regulations are “broken” and need urgent repair to avoid a public health crisis, Ohio’s top environmental regulator has warned, amid growing criticism of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s failure to eradicate misleading tests for lead in drinking water.
The Ohio EPA said it has headed off the sort of toxic water disaster seen in the city of Flint by revoking the license of the head of water treatment for the village of Sebring, where elevated lead levels were discovered.
The small Ohio water system in Sebring had failed to notify the public for months that several older homes had tested for high levels of lead. On Thursday, after Sebring village manager Richard Giroux issued a belated public notice that children and pregnant women should avoid drinking the water, schools were closed and bottled water disseminated while water levels were tested. James Bates, the removed official held responsible, is set to face charges that he deceived regulators over lead monitoring.
But Craig Butler, director of the Ohio EPA, told the Guardian that the problem is far larger than the actions of one local official. He said the examples of Sebring and Flint, where a state of emergency has been imposed due to toxic water that went unheeded for more than a year , show that the federal EPA urgently needs to revise its lead and copper rule and set a stronger example for states.
“The federal system is broken and needs to be fixed,” he said. “The rule is hopelessly complicated, virtually no one understands it. And when it is triggered, you would think that because lead is such a concern due to its impact upon pregnant women and on developmental disabilities that we’d fix it immediately. But that’s not what happens.
“If there’s a breach, the only a requirement is that you hand out a fact sheet and study the problem for a year or longer. It’s a woefully inadequate response. Our state, and other states, mirror the federal rules. We need a national platform for the states to follow, to say that lead in water is just unacceptable.”
Butler admitted that the Ohio EPA had been too “deferential” to Bates by not acting upon concerns over Sebring’s water dating back to September. But he said that every resident with lead in water measuring over the federal safe limit of 15 parts per billion was provided free bottled water – something that’s not required by national law and didn’t occur in Flint.
Flint’s water crisis was triggered by a fateful decision to switch the city’s water source to the Flint river, while investigators believe Sebring’s problems stem from a decision to change the chemical mix at the water treatment plant. Scientists have raised concerns that dangerous levels of lead will continue to seep into drinking water due to a testing regime that is regularly skewed by city and state authorities.
As the Guardian has revealed , multiple cities, including Philadelphia, Detroit and, until last month, even Flint , require residents to run their faucets for several minutes or even remove their tap aerators before taking a water sample. Research has shown these steps lessen the level of lead in samples and the EPA has advised against such practices.
Experts at Virginia Tech, who first illustrated the extent of Flint’s water problems, have warned that distorted tests mean that health authorities are slow to react to the threat of lead, a known neurotoxin that is extremely hazardous to pregnant women and their unborn children, as well as infants who can go on to experience developmental problems. People of all ages can suffer vomiting, fatigue and hair loss.
“Any distortion of a test is wrong,” said Butler. “All the guidance is there – you don’t flush the water, you can’t dilute the sample in any way. It’s wrong, it’s irresponsible.”
The Philadelphia water department has denied that its own methods are putting residents at risk, stressing that the steps have been in place since 1992 and that lead exposure in children has gone down in this time. It, too, has called on the EPA to amend its rules.
“We’ve spent the last two years asking the EPA to update the regulations, to provide information in a national website, so that people can go to it and see what the requirements are,” said Gary Burlingame, director of the bureau of laboratory services at Philadelphia Water.
“We are asking different questions about lead than we did in 1992 so we need to do things in a different way. It’s clear that the EPA hasn’t been in final agreement about which sampling method to use in each situation.”
Last year, a taskforce put forward recommendations to the EPA on how to improve its 25-year-old lead and copper rule, although these won’t be implemented before 2017.
But Dr Yanna Lambrinidou, a Virginia Tech academic who sat on the taskforce but dissented because she believed it didn’t go far enough, said that cities such as Philadelphia can’t simply blame the EPA.
“Blame does lie with the EPA for not enforcing its own regulations but water utilities like Philadelphia are ignoring the EPA’s very clear guidance and have added steps into tests which miss the worst levels of lead, which is what the rule is meant to find,” she said. “The EPA doesn’t endorse pre-flushing of taps and has said it goes against the intent of the law.
“For a water authority to say it needs the EPA to change is irresponsible and immoral and it is placing people’s health at risk. They are being disingenuous. Just because they’ve come up with a method to cheat these tests, it doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t make it moral.”
A spokeswoman for the EPA said sampling for the lead and copper rule requires that one liter of water is drawn after water has been stagnant in pipes for the previous six hours.
“EPA is aware that some utilities instructed their customers to flush the water prior to the six hour stagnation period but we do not have data on how widespread this practice is,” she said, adding that its data shows that 91% of Americans served by public water systems meet “all applicable health-based standards.”