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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Drinking Water and Lead Service Lines: Partnering to Protect Human Health

Drinking Water and Lead Service Lines: Partnering to Protect Human Health

Last month, the Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative, a group that includes the AWWA, NRWA, ASDWA, NAWC, RCAP and WRF among others, hosted a panel discussion entitled "Drinking Water and Lead Service Lines:  Partnering to Protect Human Health." The focus of this discussion was how partnerships between water utilities and public health agencies are key to helping lead service pipe replacement programs really get off the ground. 

Dr. Lynn Goldman from the Milken Institute School of Public Health started off the discussion by providing historical context, pointing to precedents that allowed lead to be "managed in place" while also allowing higher lead levels in water to be acceptable practice. She explained that when EPA's first Lead and Copper standard (1992) began to improve health outcomes for water consumers, lower-level effects began to be unmasked. This phenomenon, according to Goldman, underscores the importance of enacting revisions to the Lead & Copper Rule, as well as best practices for lead sampling strategies. Goldman emphasized the importance of developing carefully crafted lead pipe removal programs so that more lead isn't released into drinking water supplies during the remediation process.

Other takeaways from the panel of speakers include the following:

  • Some communities bear disproportional consequence of lead contamination.
  • Lead poisoning can go undetected in individuals, but even low levels of lead affect the brain.
  • Action alerts vary state-by-state, but Amanda Reddy from the National Center for Healthy Housing recommends an action level of 5 ug/dL.
  • Lead-based paint is the most widespread cause of lead poisoning, but we need comprehensive solutions to address ALL hazards. 
  • There are proven & cost effective solutions. In fact, replacing lead service lines for just the children born in 2018 would protect 350,000 individuals from future lead poisoning.
  • Solutions must include diverse stakeholders including drinking water professionals, public health officials, elected officials, community leaders and concerned consumers.
  • Lead contamination resources need to be easily accessible for individuals affected by lead in their drinking supply. 
  • Simply providing bottled water is not a long-term solution.

Public Health representatives from two municipalities (Milwaukee and Cincinnati) also spoke at the forum, and offered their lessons learned:

  • Partial Lead Service Line replacement can cause more lead to be released into drinking water supplies. Full line replacement should be the desired strategy, and working with all stakeholders to pass city-wide ordinances requiring full replacement is the most effective way to do this. 
  • Developing lead protocols for emergency leaks and repairs is critical.
  • City-wide outreach and education/awareness campaigns are a must.
  • Prioritizing schools or childcare facilities for line replacement makes sense. 
  • Milwaukee used Wisconsin's Drinking Water State Revolving Funds to replace service lines at schools, Cincinnati used a HUD grant to replace service lines for low-income residents.  
  • Cincinnati formed a county-level collaborative and pooled resources, technical providers, outreach professionals. They also targeted their outreach to PTAs, Church groups, community organizations. 
  • Challenges include: switching out interior plumbing (inside private residences), missing out on targeting some childcare/schools because they are not licensed, and finding the time and resources to communicate effectively with customers. 

Finally, Cathy Bailey, from Greater Cincinnati Water Works, a system that encompasses an area with the second highest child poverty rate and second-highest number of lead lines in the country, offered her perspective. Her system has adopted a 15-year program for full service line replacement, with cost-assistance for low-income residents and cost-sharing arrangements for other property owners. Her advice for water systems? 

  • Water Utilities should lead the effort to start the conversation about lead in drinking water and service line replacement. Utilities have a  big stake in this issue. 
  • Utilities can be proactive in providing tools and education to their community. Cincinnati provides online resources such as a lead "map' and free lead testing as well as assistance to schools funded by their general operating budget.
  • Utilities can be proactive in communicating within their organization. Cincinnati Water Works has an internal dashboard to compile lead test results, health statistics and more. They then can identify homes that qualify for free P.O.U filters. 
  • Cincinnati Water Works partners with the health department to share data, understand water quality issues and help individuals and schools mediate problems. 

The panel participant's message was clear: lead service line replacement is simply the right thing to do for communities, and partnerships with health departments and water utilities are critical to that process. Want to find out more? Check out the Lead Service Line Collaborative's online roadmap/toolkit or follow #safewater on Twitter. 

Effective Lead Sampling

Effective Lead Sampling

While the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) has helped reduce lead in drinking water over the past 25 years, complying with sampling requirements can certainly be challenging! Even when a water system faithfully follows protocols, results can be inconsistent and/or unreliable. While the conditions in which samples are taken, or procedures used, are often out of the hands of water operators, the results of these tests can have significant consequences for their water systems, not to mention the communities involved. Just ask the residents of Flint, Michigan. 

Last year, in response to these concerns, the EPA released this memo to clarify tap sampling procedures. In addition, in a move towards a rule revision due out soon, the EPA has also recently issued a LCR Revisions White Paper that offers suggestions on how to improve the rule as well as considerations for improving tap sampling. 

In this white paper, the NDWAC Lead and Copper Rule Working Group corroborates what operators have been saying all along:  the LCR sample site selection and sampling process "provides opportunity for error, particularly given that samples are collected by residents themselves."  In addition, the group says the current system provides "opportunities for systems to implement sampling procedures to avoid exceeding the action level..." 

How to fix the problem? The group suggests substituting a voluntary customer-initiated sampling program for the current LCR tap sampling requirements and/or partnering with technology developers to identify and develop real-time monitoring technologies (such as this inexpensive lead monitor), among other things.

All this is well and good, but until this technology becomes available, and/or a more prescriptive sampling guidance or revised rule released, what is a water operator to do? Is there any sampling method that offers the most reliable results in the most efficient way?

This is the topic of a recent AWWA/WRF study entitled “Evaluation of Lead Sampling Strategies”. The study found that the answer to this question does not come easily. In fact, according to the study, "no sampling method was particularly proficient at finding the peak lead level compared to doing a full profile for each sampling event”. In addition, the type of lead found in samples was inconsistent: “even at a specific site, on some occasions the sampling can be particulate dominated and on other dates the lead can be dissolved dominated or some combination,” the report states.

It is no wonder that water operators across the country may welcome further guidance on this rule. In the meantime, Michigan's DEQ offers a couple of helpful resources: these sampling instructions can help water systems assure residents are following proper procedure and this sample site selection criteria factsheet can help systems ensure a large and diverse enough sampling pool. Please note that the use of guidance material from EPA, other states, and third-parties can offer insight and clarification, but should not be considered a substitute for policies and guidance from your primacy agency. 

To get an update on lead issues in the water industry, join this webinar that will be presented by the VA-AWWA in November. 

Finally, be sure to check out this AWWA video featured on our blog earlier this year: Lead and Copper Sampling.

Featured Video: Lead and Copper Sampling

For the past three weeks, we've talked about the dangers to drinking water quality posed by water storage facilities, and discussed what you can do to combat them. But there's another source of drinking water contamination that's gotten a lot more press in the past few years, and that's the distribution system. Lead and copper pipes are known for their ability to leach metal into the water they contain. When the pipes are particularly exposed or the water chemistry is particularly favorable, they can leach a lot. If your customers have an increased interest in getting their water tested---or you'd like a refresher on how lead and copper sampling works yourself---this video from AWWA can be a great place to start. The two-and-a-half minute video briefly outlines the basic provisions of the Lead and Copper Rule, and goes on to discuss the proper technique for collecting lead and copper samples.

The Quick Reference Guides mentioned in the video can be found on the USEPA website here. The page with additional resources on the rule is here. To see what consumer information resources other utilities and states have developed for the Lead and Copper Rule, search our document database using the category Lead and Copper and the type Factsheets/Case Studies.