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The truth about lead in Philly, and what you can do about the problem

As the water situation got increasingly grim in Flint, Mich., where allegations have flown of officials ignoring signs that lead filled the water supply, other cities across the country have come under the microscope. Philadelphia is one of them.

The Guardian reported the water department’s testing process is “worse than Flint.” Vox published a story saying Philadelphia is one of 18 cities in Pennsylvania with higher levels of lead exposure than Flint. And on Friday, NBC News rained down on the water department, saying it’s under review by the state Department of Environmental Protection and its water testing procedures don’t meet regulations.

Meanwhile, city officials and water department leaders have effectively said it’s baloney. They’ve defended their water as safe and said they’re doing everything they can to keep the levels low.

So what’s the truth?

The first thing you need to know: Despite the national attention, there is — at this point — no evidence to suggest that the water you’re drinking here in Philly is tainted with dangerous levels of lead.

As far as the actual testing process, some activists have been critical of steps they say the water department has customers take that falsely decreases lead readings in the water. But other experts say the Water Department is totally kosher — and there’s little science besides anecdotal evidence to suggest they’re doing anything that would greatly change the lead readings here in Philly.

What’s more, is that lead exposure is a huge problem in this city. Just not entirely from the water supply. Children across the city have been exposed to dangerous levels of lead, but the majority of that, according to health officials, comes from lead-based paint chipping on the walls of homes built before we knew the dangers of the metal.

The scope of the exposure

Since the water situation in Flint has caused municipalities across America to check their water, Philadelphia freshman Councilwoman Helen Gym has called for hearings here to assess the supply, as well as the testing process.

She also says she’s interested in how the water department goes about educating the public in what’s safe and what’s not. (For example, did you know hot water can carry higher levels of lead than the cold water that comes straight from the water main? Officials say to use cold water in cooking and drinking. And don’t drink when you’re in a hot shower.)

What Gym did say is that she’s not drawing attention to the problem here because she thinks we are just like Flint. In fact, she said, she thinks “we are definitely not Flint.”

“But we are an older city and we have aging infrastructure and we have families in dire need and so it calls for us to be vigilant,” she said, adding, “This is a rare moment when people are deeply moved and horrified by what happened and we have to make sure we’re doing our due diligence.”

The most recent report from the state Department of Health indicates that in 2014, 10 percent of children tested in Philadelphia had elevated levels of lead in their blood. In Allentown the same year, nearly a quarter of children tested positive for elevated levels, which is higher than 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (a lower threshold than what it used to be.) Both of those figures from Philadelphia and Allentown are much higher than the 3 percent of kids who tested positive in Flint.

But there’s a big difference. That lead exposure did not come in the midst of a tainted water supply and it wasn’t a sudden spike. In Philadelphia, blood lead levels measured by the Department of Health have been for the most part decreasing since 1978 when lead-based paints were banned for use in homes.

Lead is a serious health concern, though. It can cause severe developmental and neurological problems in young children and is dangerous for women who are pregnant. Here in Philly, the most exposure to lead in kids comes from lead paint that chips away, deteriorates and creates dust — most oftentimes that lead paint is underneath layers of lead-free paint and homeowners may not even know it’s there.

Palak Raval-Nelson, the director of environmental health services at the Philadelphia Dept. of Health, said flatly that “the big problem in Philadelphia” is paint, not water.

Under Philadelphia’s Lead Paint Disclosure and Certification Law, landlords are required to tell tenants about the likely presence of lead paint in the homes if it was built before 1978 — likely more than 85 percent of homes in Philly — and they must provide the tenant with information about health risks.

And a newer law was created in Philly in 2012 that requires landlords to provide tenants with kids under the age of 6 with a certificate stating that the property is either lead-free or lead-safe. The city’s also set up a “lead court” meant to force landlords to comply with regulations and get rid of hazardous levels of lead in homes.

But how do we know what’s in the water?

The challenge here in Philadelphia, as it is in many municipalities, is that lead in the water doesn’t come from pipes owned by the city. It comes from pipes owned by you.

Gary Burlingame, an environmental scientist with the Philadelphia Water Department, explained that the city owns the water mains that are virtually lead-free, and are able to manipulate pipes up until what’s called the “curb stop” because it usually falls somewhere near the curb.

Beyond that is what’s called the supply pipe. This is what can be a lead service line, and it is entirely owned by the homeowner. So the Water Department can’t change the pipes, test the pipes or rip out the pipes without a homeowner volunteering up a test or electing to pay to change their pipes.

The lead exposure comes from when fresh water from the water main sits in lead service lines and corrodes, collecting lead along the way and coming out of the tap and into the drinking water supply.

Burlingame, a 30-year veteran of PWD, says the city does two things to make sure its water isn’t too corrosive. First, it constantly monitors the pH level in the water to ensure it isn’t too acidic and would corrode metal pipes faster. And in 1998, it got a permit from the state to begin adding phosphates to the water, a natural chemical that coats the inside of the pipes and help prevent lead from leaching into the water.

But the ownership problem means that beyond that, there’s little the water department can actually do to prevent lead getting into the water supply.

A look at how the plumbing connects with city water mains.

A look at how the plumbing connects with city water mains.

Water Department

In 2014 in its last sampling round, the Water Department sent out 8,000 letters to homeowners in the city, specifically targeting areas where they know homes were built before 1950 and are most likely to have a lead service line. They asked those homeowners to offer up their water to be tested for lead for free as part of the sampling process.

Just 134 homeowners responded, which still meets federal regulations in terms of how many homes need to be sampled to get an accurate reading. In that year, Philadelphia’s average of lead in the water was well below the 15 parts per billion threshold that would put it in trouble of being at dangerous levels, according to the EPA.

Neil Shader, a spokesman with the state Department of Environmental Protection, said PWD “appears to be in compliance with state and federal regulations when it comes to sampling homes for lead in the drinking water.“ He added that of the 134 homeowners who responded in 2014, 42 were considered “tier 1” homes, AKA homes that have one or more of the following: copper pipes with lead solder installed after 1982, lead pipes or lead service lines.

In a response to an NBC News story critical of the testing procedures, the Water Department said that in 2014, it sampled 34 homes with lead service lines and lead solder and 100 homes with lead solder. The state requires a minimum of 50 homes (at least half with lead service lines and half with lead solder) are tested during the sampling process. So technically, PWD’s tests exceeded that requirement.

Burlingame recommended that if your home was built before 1950, the first step you should take is figuring out whether or not you have a lead service line. That can be done through an at-home check. Stores like Lowes and Home Depot sell testing kits you can use to discern what your pipes are made of. From there, if you have concerns about the water in your home, call PWD at 215-685-6300 and they’ll walk you through the process to get your water tested.

Furthermore, Burlingame asks that next time a mass sampling comes around like it did in 2014 — that’ll be next year — offer up your water to be tested. The more the department can test from residents, the better of an idea they have of how corrosive their water really is.

The testing process itself

Where Philly homes were built pre-1950 and are most likely to have lead service lines.

Where Philly homes were built pre-1950 and are most likely to have lead service lines.

Yanna Lambrinidou, an adjunct professor at Virginia Tech and a medical ethnographer by trade, has been one of the loudest voices in speaking out against what she sees as bad water testing practice here in Philly. She’s the one who said Philadelphia’s procedures could be “worse than Flint.”

“Philadelphia is… sampling in a way that is irregular. There is a very clear proper protocol that is spelled out very clearly by the EPA and that’s not what Philadelphia is using,” Lambrinidou, founder of Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives, told Billy Penn. “The protocol that Philadelphia is using has three different steps known to miss lead in water problems.”

Some parts of the water sampling process Philadelphia uses are controversial. But none that we found were illegal, or even uncommon.

Burlingame walked us through the water sampling process that’s done en masse every three years in Philly to make sure the water isn’t too corrosive. Residents are asked to let their water sit in the supply pipe for at least six hours without running the water in their home. This allows for water to corrode the pipes to a point that’s normal for, say, an average night’s sleep.

What comes next is where the controversy is. Residents are told to first remove the aerator from the faucet — that’s the tiny piece on the end of the faucet that you’re supposed to clean a few times of year. Hard metals can gather in it. Next, residents are told to run only the cold water for two minutes to ensure that cold water is the last water running through the faucet before the testing. Then fill up the testing bottle.

Burlingame said the aerator is removed because it’s good practice — adding that it should be cleaned at least twice a year anyway. However, EPA protocols don’t mention this step. Lambrinidou said both of those steps can falsely decrease lead levels in the water supply, specifically mentioning a case in Durham, N.C. in 2003 when young twins were lead poisoned after the removal of an aerator meant lead levels in the water were missed.

“If you sample correctly as the EPA requires, then it’s very possible you’re going to find lead in water problems,” she said. “That’s going to trigger a whole other set of requirements that can be very costly and very time consuming.”

Clearly, the Water Department disagrees. The state DEP says its processes are in compliance. And Burlingame said that there isn’t science to back up a claim that leaving aerators on would increase lead level detection in Philly. Charles Haas, the director of the environmental engineering program at Drexel and an expert in water treatment, said the removal of the aerator is controversial, but “there’s very little data on this point one way or the other.”

“There’s certainly a controversy over the sampling method and we need more data,” he said. “But there’s certainly no evidence of any attempt to cover up or deceive. They’re doing things generally regarded as being appropriate.”

He said that in general, research and infrastructure replacement in this field has been underfunded. But, he said, the Water Department surely wants to sample more than 134 homes each year. It comes down to homeowners offering them up.

If you ask Lambrinidou, she’d say Philadelphia doesn’t have a clear reading of what the lead levels in the water really are and so residents can’t make an assessment of relative safety. That’s where upcoming City Council hearings come in to review those processes. Burlingame says residents can help the water department in that regard by responding when they get a letter asking to have their water tested. “Be glad we’re there,” he said.

“I’m personally invested in it, so if something’s going on in Philadelphia [with the water supply], I know about it,” he said. “There’s nothing going on here.”

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