Colorado town’s tests reveal lead in water of older homes
by Trevor Hughes, originally published on March 16, 2016
FIRESTONE, Colo. — Standing glumly behind the screen door of the brick house she has called home since 1971, Mary Schell shares the bad news: “We have it.”
“It” is confirmation that the water in her home contains high levels of lead. Schell and her husband tested their water in the fall after town officials discovered in October that 11 homes in their neighborhood had high levels. A subsequent round of testing in December found six homes exceeding federal limits.
Town officials repeatedly notified all water customers of the high levels and distributed information explaining how to reduce the risk. But the town, about 30 miles north of Denver, has taken no direct action to help residents replace the aging faucets and fixtures blamed for leaching lead into their drinking water.
The town’s testing found lead contamination only in homes built before 1986.
“We’ve talked about moving since we found out, but we never will,” Schell said of the single-story brick house she has lived in for 44 years. “We own this house.”
The town’s water provider installed a system in the fall to inject a phosphate coating agent into the water to help reduce the corrosive effect that leaches lead from plumbing. That’s the solution required by state regulators, who say Firestone is making progress in bringing down lead levels.
“It is our hope that this additive to our water supply will continue to reduce the lead levels inside these older homes,” Mayor Paul Sorensen said in a prepared statement.
Like many fast-growing towns on Colorado’s Front Range, Firestone is a small, old-town area surrounded with new suburbs. The town has a few blocks of old homes amidst nearly 3,500 newer ones.
In Firestone’s case, testing never has found lead in the municipal water supply or in any of the newer homes. That means the bulk of the town’s 12,000 residents face almost no risk.
The problem flows in the older homes.
A few blocks down from the Schells, Joe Martinez recalls how his now-rambling single-story home once had just two rooms and an outhouse in the yard. Martinez and his wife reared five kids in their home, adding space as the family grew.
Martinez is a veteran who has been drinking the water there for 60 years. All his indoor plumbing is now plastic.
He replaced the galvanized service line into his home awhile back with plastic, too.
“We’ve been here for years and years and years,” he said. “All of my kids are fine. That’s why I don’t worry.”
Firestone’s system is designed to prevent contaminated water from flowing from customers’ homes back into the main distribution system. All town-owned pipes running into customers’ homes are made of copper, town officials said.
They declined to tell USA TODAY whether the pipes are soldered with materials containing lead, which can leach into the water. Town officials also declined multiple opportunities to be interviewed and instead sent a statement reiterating that the water is safe.
In the most recent round of testing in December, six of 40 sites tested at greater than the action level. State officials consider that progress.
In October, 11 homes had lead levels higher than the federal action level.
The town has violated that federal standard five times since 2014. It’s required to test more frequently than other towns as a result.
The newest tests were conducted six weeks after Firestone’s water provider installed a system for reducing pipe corrosion.
“We’re very much headed in the right direction,” said Ron Falco, manager for Colorado’s Safe Drinking Water program. “You’d love to see no homes over the action level. That’s where we’d like to get to.”
Health experts are starting to believe that lead contamination must be addressed more quickly than it is in current federal laws and regulations, Falco said. Rules now require water systems to disclose high levels of lead, but they are under no obligation to halt water deliveries or help homeowners replace plumbing.
State health officials declined to release addresses of the Firestone homes found to have high lead levels in their drinking water. The law has no requirement that homeowners or real-estate agents disclose those elevated lead levels to prospective buyers, Falco said.
Both state and local officials withhold that information from the public.
Falco said he would drink the water in Firestone as long as he followed risk-reduction guidelines, such as flushing a faucet using cold water for 1 to 2 minutes. Instead, all water customers are alerted about the potential risk of lead contamination and advised how to reduce their risk. In contrast, lead-paint disclosures during home sales are mandatory.
Schell’s husband, a retired plumber, installed special lead-removal filters on their water lines and another one on a faucet in the kitchen in the fall. Stroking her cat Ned as he peered through the screen door at kids coming home from school, Schell said she thinks the town did a good job alerting customers to lead concerns when the tests came back positive.
Schell said she remembers when the block had only a few homes on it. She has watched the town and her own family grow up drinking the water.
They’ve never had any problems, she said. All her kids are healthy, but she worries about what she doesn’t know.
“I was concerned because they didn’t find it sooner,” she said. “It still concerns me, the high levels that we have.”