It's like a beautiful rusty rainbow!

[contextly_sidebar id="cSG5xdLlKpbxZd1OUl7K365zJWHelNZ0"]Almost every time we write about the multiple bureaucratic and political failures that led to the poisoning of Flint, Michigan's water supply with incredible amounts of lead, we pour ourselves a nice cold glass of clean water from our Brita water pitcher and think how glad we are that disasters like Flint's don't happen all the time. And then along comes Sunday's New York Times to let us know that, thanks to spotty regulation and lax enforcement, municipal water systems all over the country are tainted with lead and other nasty stuff, though few are as awful as Flint's. Yay, how comforting.

In any number of places, loopholes in regulation, outright opposition to regulation and staff cuts in agencies that test water have led to water supplies that are far less safe than you'd expect in what we like to think of as the most technologically advanced nation on Earth. Or at least we used to be, back when we still paid for infrastructure, which has become boring and not worth thinking about until a bridge collapses or an entire city's water supply poisons kids. Worse, thanks to the universal tendency of bureaucrats to focus on covering their asses, when problems arise, officials all too often deny or cover them up. The Times article kicks off with a few recent horror stories:

  • Sebring, Ohio, where the city inexplicably stopped adding anti-corrosion chemicals to the water system, and lead levels in drinking water spiked. The city delayed telling pregnant women and young children not to drink tap water for five months; eventually it shut off drinking fountains and taps in the schools.
  • Washington DC, where in 2001 a change to how the city disinfected drinking water led to thousands of homes with lead levels with as much as 20 times what the EPA says should trigger emergency action. That only took three years to disclose to the public. Then, even though the city replaced lead water pipes serving 17,600 homes, later testing still showed high lead levels in the water.
  • Jackson, Mississippi, where again, it took six months for officials to disclose high lead levels just last year.

A big part of the problem is that in too many places, there are still lots of lead pipes or iron pipes joined together with lead solder. Congress outlawed lead water pipes 30 years ago, but "between 3.3 million and 10 million older ones" remain in use, just waiting for the right combination of chemicals or other disruptions -- a break during construction, say -- to start leaching lead into drinking water. Fun!

What's more, testing requirements are loose enough (and the agencies who do the testing so underfunded and understaffed) that problems can go unnoticed for years. The Times is too polite to mention Republican zeal for murdering regulation (which kills jobs, though it might keep your kids from getting poisoned), but the article does tally some of the fallout:

Adjusted for inflation, the $100 million annual budget of the E.P.A.’s drinking water office has fallen 15 percent since 2006, and the office has lost more than a tenth of its staff.

States are equally hard hit. In 2013, the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators said federal officials had slashed drinking-water grants, 17 states had cut drinking-water budgets by more than a fifth, and 27 had cut spending on full-time employees.

[contextly_sidebar id="AzgptTM8H0YUQrq1aFJZPXujg6okHKKc"]Remember, government only interferes with job growth. OK, and maybe giardia and legionella growth, too. And while Republicans are busy blaming the EPA for failing to protect the people of Flint, they also passed, in both the House and Senate, legislation that would have gutted new EPA's powers to regulate the quality of streams and wetlands that provide water for a third of Americans, because it would be bad for business. Barack Obama vetoed the legislation, but now states are suing to keep the regulations from going into place, because profits are far more important than clean water. Until people get sick and Republicans can ask where the lousy EPA was -- and then cut its budget some more, since obviously it's not doing any good. Lather, Reince, repeat.

Even the EPA isn't exactly doing the most rigorous science on lead. While it's universally agreed that there's no such thing as a "safe" level of lead in water, the level that EPA set as the trigger for emergency action was chosen on surprisingly arbitrary grounds:

The E.P.A.’s trigger level for addressing lead in drinking water — 15 parts per billion — is not based on any health threat; rather, it reflects a calculation that water in at least nine in 10 homes susceptible to lead contamination will fall below that standard.

Your water's only got a little bit of deadly neurotoxin in it? No biggie. Worse, water testing requirements allow municipal utilities to game their testing -- as happened in Flint -- by picking and choosing which homes to include in tests. Leave out a few high test numbers, and the whole city's average goes down! Then there are the problems that can arise in between tests, which only have to be carried out every three years, as illustrated by the case of Brick Township, New Jersey, population 75,000, where in 2011 only two homes exceeded the 15 parts per billion lead level that's supposed to require action. Pretty decent water there, right?

But in the next mandated test, three years later, it found that 16 of 34 homes exceeded the limit -- one of them by a dozen times. The growing use of road salt in recent winters, it turned out, had raised chloride levels in the river from which Brick drew its water. Undetected, the chloride corroded aged lead pipes running to older homes, leaching lead into tap water.

Oopsies. Mistakes were made, and they were all perfectly legal, because who wants federal regulators breathing down your neck and interfering with jobs? Bad enough that Donald Trump can't use his preferred hairspray because of the ozone; just think how terrible it would be to have to think about runoff into water supplies before plowing and salting the roads?

The EPA's Drinking Water Committee did at least endorse a recommendation for tighter lead regulations in December, just as news from Flint was starting to go national. Sounds like there are some good ideas in there, too:

The group said water systems should bolster their anti-corrosion efforts and test more often to ensure that they are working. It called for the E.P.A. to set a standard for lead in drinking water based on its effect on people’s health, likely below the current level, and to require water systems to tell homeowners and public-health officials whenever it is exceeded.

Even so, advisory panel member Yanna Lambrinidou of Virginia Tech (home of one of the researchers who made Flint's problems public) dissented, saying the proposed changes don't go far enough to protect public health. She pointed out that water samples taken from water just sitting in lead pipes "had unacceptable lead levels in as much as 70.5 percent of water systems." Clearly, she's some sort of radical. The EPA advisory did at least call for the eventual replacement of all lead pipes from water systems nationwide, although it had no recommendations about how that could be paid for, perhaps because while they know what would be good for public health, they also know that price tags scare politicians. And it would indeed be expensive:

At $5,000 per pipe, by one estimate, that would consume between $16.5 billion and $50 billion — and that is but a fraction of the $384 billion in deferred maintenance the E.P.A. says is needed by 2030 to keep drinking water safe.

Nah, Republicans will say, we're good. At least until the lead levels in a suburb where rich white GOP donors live are too high. Then it will be a REAL emergency.

Acting as a canary in a coal mine, Erik D. Olsen of the Natural Resources Defense Council said:

You think our roads and bridges aren’t being fixed? The stuff underground is just totally ignored. We’re mostly living off the investment of our parents and grandparents for our drinking water supply.

Mr. Olsen then chirped once and keeled over.

There's a whole lot more in the Times report, especially on contaminants that the EPA hasn't even had the chance to test for safety, but you'll have to go read the whole thing yourself, because since we started writing this post we switched from filtered tap water to nice safe distilled spirits, which may not be great for our liver but are almost definitely lead-free.

[NYT / Michigan Radio]

Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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