Testing to get the lead out

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

The crisis in Flint, Mich., put a spotlight on the risks of lead in drinking water.

The public water supplies in Buffalo and surrounding areas are not facing the same problems as Flint. Nonetheless, lead still poses a risk here because of our old infrastructure and housing stock. In fact, experts say there is always a risk of lead leaching into your tap water if you have a lead service line.

Days after my story “Looking for lead (in all the wrong places)” in August 2016, I got calls from concerned Buffalo residents who wanted to know how they could get their water tested.

Marc Edwards, the civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech University who is credited with helping uncover the crisis in Flint, sent me testing kits for city residents.

I distributed kits to 22 Buffalo residents. The results expose flaws in the way most water providers test for lead in tap water and advise families on how to mitigate the risks.

Of the 22 homes, four tested above the federal Food and Drug Administration’s standard for lead in bottled water. Mayor Byron Brown adopted the FDA’s standard – 5 parts per billion – for the city’s drinking water last fall due to to my story “Looking for lead (in all the wrong places).”

At concentrations above 5 parts per billion, “I start to become pretty concerned,” Edwards said, “because the models predict that you’re going to elevate your child’s blood lead level somewhat and that’s just not acceptable.”

Keep in mind, the FDA’s standard for lead in bottled water is stricter than the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard of 15 parts per billion for drinking water set in 1991. Think about this for a second: two federal agencies have different standards for lead in water intended for consumption.

If the Buffalo Water Board had tested these homes using the sampling method that is generally accepted by the EPA, only one of the 22 homes would have failed. That’s because most water providers collect only one liter of tap water to test for lead in a home. On average, it takes about 15 seconds to fill that bottle.

But Edwards said this testing method is inadequate because water utilities are not collecting enough water for testing.

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We used a three-bottle method, collecting almost double the volume of water from each home. The first bottle is the same liter bottle used by most water utilities. Participants filled the second 500 milliliter bottle after the faucet runs for up to an additional 45 seconds. Participants filled the third bottle after the faucet runs for an additional two minutes.

Of the four homes that failed, three had the highest concentrations of lead in the second bottle.

For example, one home we tested showed 1.6 parts per billion of lead in the first bottle, 6.6 parts per billion of lead in the second bottle and 1.6 parts per billion of lead in the third bottle. If the Buffalo Water Board had tested the tap water in that home, they would have reported the 1.6 parts per billion as the result.

Another home tested at 1.4 parts per billion in the first bottle, 7.1 parts per billion for the second bottle and 1.4 parts per billion in the third bottle.

Edwards said this means the testing method employed by the Buffalo Water Board and most other water providers can give false assurances that the water has insignificant concentrations of lead when the levels may in fact pose a risk.

“That tells you how badly we’re missing the real health threat here,” he said.


Flawed testing procedures and two families failed by the system


OJ McFoy, the Buffalo Water Board chairman, said the city is preparing to launch a pilot program to collect more tap water from homes they test.

“Where is this coming from in the system? That’s what we want to know,” McFoy said.

In addition, water providers and health officials often tell people who are concerned about lead in tap water to run the water between 30 seconds and two minutes before using it for cooking or drinking. These instructions are in the annual water quality reports for both the Buffalo Water Board and Erie County Water Authority.

Edwards said this is bad advice. Using the results of our testing, running the water can actually increase the concentrations of lead.

“If you want to avoid that, you have to flush it at least two minutes,” Edwards said.

McFoy said the city’s annual water quality reports follow EPA protocol with respect to the advice on flushing the water.

“That information we’ve pulled from other cities, as well as the EPA,” he said. “We will take a look at it, but right now that’s what we have and we’re going to see if our empirical data shows different things.”

If you are concerned about lead in drinking water, there is a cost-effective solution: use water filters certified by NSF to remove lead from tap water.

“If you use it to clean the water used for cooking and drinking, your worries are over,” Edwards said. “You just have to maintain it.”

To find filters certified to remove lead, go to the NSF website.