Federal standard overlooks certain water systems


-By Lillian Reed, originally posted on November 4, 2016


Some public drinking water systems are not required to test for lead under the Lead and Copper Rule, the primary federal standard for monitoring the toxic metal.

As a result, those public water systems, which can include restaurants, churches or businesses, are left to monitor for lead with less oversight. The consumers, employees and visitors who frequent those systems might not be guaranteed that the water is held to the same standards as the water that flows into their homes.

There are many health risks associated with ingesting lead, which accumulates in the body, such as an increased risk of cancer, kidney damage and development issues in children.

The cost and manpower required to replace every last bit of lead in Pennsylvania’s more than 8,700 public water systems, which serve 10.7 million people, is too great. So water systems are prioritized for regulation based on how many people each one serves.

While other state regulating entities do instruct these water systems to test for lead, the directions can be arbitrary or fail to define a maximum amount of lead that should be in the drinking water system.

An Evening Sun investigation found 105 public water systems in Adams County are not required by the Lead and Copper Rule to conduct regular water sample testing for lead.

Limitations on the state

Regulating Pennsylvania’s 8,700 public water systems for every possible contaminant might require endless resources, so the state makes compromises.

Regulations are a compromise between public health needs and what industries and governments can feasibly implement on a national scale, said Rodney Nesmith, an environmental program manager with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s safe drinking water program.

The Lead and Copper Rule is designed to regulate water systems with the highest risk to the largest populations.

Part I: ‘No getting away from lead’ in Adams Co. water

The rule says that water samples should not contain more than 15 parts per billion of lead. Some studies have found that people have been harmed when, over time, they consumed water with lead levels above 5 parts per billion, which is the maximum amount of lead contamination the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows in bottled water, USA Today reported in March.

In Adams County, 105 public water systems have not been required to test for lead under the Lead and Copper Rule because they have been categorized as transient non-community systems, Nesmith said.

“Transient means I go into this place, I grab a glass of soda with some ice in it, I leave,” Nesmith said. “I may never come back there again. My health exposure to that water is pretty minimal.”

Even though the Lead and Copper Rule exempts transient water systems from its regulations, those water systems could opt to test independently and must follow lead regulations from other government agencies, Nesmith said.

Transient water systems are exempt from the Lead and Copper Rule if there are less than 25 regular daily users. Of the 2,400 public drinking water systems in the southcentral region of Pennsylvania, about one in three is subject to the rule.

Many of the 105 transient water systems in Adams County include churches, restaurants and businesses, where the population served may be visiting sporadically.

Still, scientists and government entities agree — no amount of lead in drinking water is safe.

Lead accumulates in the blood stream, and exposure to lead from multiple sources can compound the risk of health issues. Too much lead absorbed into the body can cause serious health problems, including kidney damage, increased risks for cancer and stunted development. Still, experts are not in agreement about exactly how much lead it takes to cause serious damage, since lead affects people in different ways.

Long-term exposure to lead could increase a person’s risk of harm. Children and pregnant women are at greater risk for experiencing the harmful effects of lead in the body.

Additionally, people can be exposed to lead through other ways such as soil contaminated with old leaded gasoline and factory waste and dust from deteriorating lead-based paint, which is often found in older homes, according to USA Today. The more lead a person is exposed to, the more strain is placed on the body.

In Adams County, 32 percent of water samples collected between 2013 and 2015 from mostly residential locations were found to contain trace amounts of lead.

“What you have to remember is the rules are written on the federal level with population health protection in mind,” Nesmith said of transient water systems. “So the rule strikes a balance between public health protection and cost. So yes, an employee at that place that does drink the water day in and day out does not receive the protections of the (Lead and Copper Rule).”

Nesmith declined to comment on whether he believed the law should change, but said resources are limited for the department under the current regulations.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection regulates the fourth largest collection of public water systems in the U.S. The department regulates each of these water systems for about 100 different substances, including lead, Nesmith said.

“To deal with that many systems — people say, ‘How come you didn’t check this or how come you didn’t catch that,” Nesmith said. “We have limited resources.”

When Nesmith started with the department in the 1980s, the southcentral office had 18 full-time testers, he said. In 2016, there are 12 testers responsible for monitoring and regulating public drinking water systems.

Computer software helps the department keep up on monitoring systems regularly, but the southcentral region has 30 percent less field testers than it used to, Nesmith said.

A reactionary regulation

Lead rarely naturally exists in water at its source. Rather, it works its way into public drinking water through the pipes, water mains and other infrastructure that exists between a water plant and a home faucet.

The more corrosive water is, the more likely it is to cause pipes to leach lead.

Despite the health hazards associated with ingesting lead, the element is considered an essential part of plumbing and construction materials in the United States.

In 1991, Pennsylvania passed a ban on lead, stating that building materials must be lead free. Pennsylvania law defines “lead free” as up to .25 percent lead on surfaces in contact with drinking water and less than .2 percent lead in solder.

The state has some of the oldest housing stock in the country, Nesmith said. Many homes and water systems still contain lead pipes or lead soldering in larger amounts than what current laws permit. Even brass faucets can contain a small amount of lead, he said.

Unlike other sources of lead exposure, contaminated water poses an increased threat because you are drinking it, USA Today reported in March.

But the system for regulating lead in public drinking water in the United States is reactionary in design. No penalties are issued or alarm bells sounded until sometimes weeks after a water sample has tested positively for lead.

In Pennsylvania, the law says that a water system does not need to notify customers of their test results until 30 days after the end of a six month monitoring period, as opposed to after a sample is tested, Nesmith said.

For example, if a water system tests samples in March and finds a presence of lead at 16 parts per billion — a potentially dangerous reading that exceeds the federal standard — the water company is not required to tell the homeowner until 30 days after the end of June.

State records show that seven public drinking water systems in Adams County had samples that exceeded the standard of 15 parts per billion between 2013 and 2015.

The same state records showed zero samples on file for the 105 transient non-community water systems.

Just because a transient water system doesn’t fall under the Lead and Copper Rule, does not mean it has not been tested, Nesmith said.

Other entities such as the Pennsylvania departments of health or agriculture might have some standards that apply to lead testing of certain water systems that belong to restaurants, for example, he said.

The other departments’ regulations are not nearly as comprehensive as the standards applied by the DEP, Nesmith said.

Sometimes the regulation is as vague as “water has to be potable,” he said.

Nesmith has no official opinion on whether a water system should test for lead if it is small enough to not be regulated by the Lead and Copper Rule, he said.

Still, the easiest, low-cost alternative to treating water that business owners or employees can employ is to flush the system for several minutes, Nesmith said. Water accumulates lead when it comes into contact with lead for extended periods of time so flushing the system can counter that problem.

“Turn it on and let it run for 30 seconds or a minute and you probably have fresh water out of the well,” he said.

The private industry of water testing

With such a high quantity of water systems in Pennsylvania, a private industry for water testing has planted roots in the area.

Private businesses such as Atlantic Blue Water Services, which is based in Westminster, Maryland, advertise water testing for residential homes and water cooler programs for businesses throughout Adams County, according to the company’s website.

Several restaurants that qualify as transient water systems surveyed by The Evening Sun reported having frequent water testing for lead done through private companies such as Atlantic Blue.

The Pennsylvania DEP also lists on its website state accredited laboratories that will test lead for water systems and homeowners.

One of those accredited facilities is Laboratory, Analytical & Biological Services Inc. (LABS), in East Berlin.

Inside of the LABS facility, dozens of plastic cartons containing water samples sit in neat little rows waiting to be tested.

Technical Director Julie Waddington spends her days at LABS going through each sample methodically. She inserts small vials of water into the atomic absorption spectrophotometer, the machine used to measure metals such as lead, carefully labeling and recording the cartons as she goes along. 

Pennsylvania’s testing schedule for lead is triennial, meaning that it is required once every three years. This year is one of the testing years, meaning Waddington is busy. 

Waddington tests more than 100 water samples for lead per week, many of which come from municipal water systems. The facility also tests for private businesses and homeowners, she said.

With so many containers of water in the lab at any given time, organization is as important as accuracy. 

“I’m really careful,” Waddington said. She marks each carton’s identification number on a clipboard and then logs it in her computer software before she begins to test for lead.

“Each sample is measured by machines three times,” Waddington said. “It then takes the average of that as a result.”

Not many individuals come in to test their water for lead unless they’re being required to do so for a housing loan, she said. Sometimes Waddington will urge family members to bring in samples to her for testing, just to be safe, she said.

“I see homes that have just been built with brass or bronze fixtures,” Waddington said. “They think they have a safe new home and think, ‘How can I be getting lead in there?’ But it’s because those new fixtures are leaching.”

Waddington follows the DEP’s recommendations for water testing and flags any sample that comes back higher than 15 parts per billion. If she gets an incredibly high reading, she won’t wait to notify the water system. 

“Occasionally, I’ll see one that’s high in a school, and I’ll be worried about the kids,” she said. “I’ll tell the secretary and get on the phone immediately to call the school to tell them to stop using that sample location.”

Everyone should have their water tested for lead, Waddington said. 

“You should have a knowledge and background level just to have as a reference for if there’s a problem,” she said. “There’s always going to be something in your water.”

About this series

This article is the second in a series from The Evening Sun about lead in public drinking water. 

Coming Sunday, Nov. 13, part three of this series will show how homeowners and private well owners can practice diligence in self-monitoring their water for lead.

The first installment in this series explored lead test results for Adams County’s public drinking water systems. The article, titled “‘No getting away from lead’ in Adams Co. water” was published in print Sunday, Oct. 30  and is available on The Evening Sun website.

Transient non-community water systems in Adams County

  1. Abbottstown Plaza
  2. Adams Rescue Mission
  3. Amvets Post 172
  4. Apple Bin Grill & Bakery
  5. Apple Valley Creamery
  6. Artillery Ridge Campground
  7. Barlow Fire Department
  8. Bethel Mennonite Church
  9. Blue Ridge Sportsmens Club
  10. Blue Sky Motel
  11. Bridges GC
  12. Brookview Lodge
  13. Butcher Block
  14. C&D Bar & Grill
  15. Cameo Drive-In
  16. Camp Eder
  17. Camp Happy Valley/Camp Skyloft
  18. Camp Nawakwa
  19. Cedar Ridge GC
  20. Church of Jesus Christ of LDS
  21. Ciao Bella
  22. Conewago Campground
  23. Crabbs Tropical Treat
  24. Dave & Janes
  25. Dollar General Aspers 16693
  26. Dollar General East Berlin
  27. Dr. Peter Samuels Office
  28. Drummer Boy Campground
  29. Earles Inn
  30. ENG Congregation of Jehovahs Witness GBG
  31. Fellowship Baptist Church
  32. First Baptist Church
  33. First Baptist Church of Littlestown
  34. Flatbush GC
  35. Flors Evan Lutheran Church
  36. Frat. Order of the Eagles 2226
  37. Frontier Bar B Q
  38. Gallo Pizza Italian Restaurant
  39. Gettysburg Auto Auction
  40. Gettysburg Baptist Church
  41. Gettysburg Battlefield Resort
  42. Gettysburg Church of Christ
  43. Gettysburg Campground
  44. Gettysburg Hampton Inn
  45. Gettysburg Hunting & Camping
  46. Gettysburg KOA
  47. Gettysburg Sunoco 2709
  48. Gillys Bowl & Grill
  49. Gloryridge Campground
  50. Goal Post
  51. Granite Hill Campground
  52. Harvest Chapel
  53. Herr Tavern
  54. Hickory Bridge Farm
  55. Hillside Family Restaurant
  56. Hillside Inn
  57. Hobby Horse Cafe
  58. Hollabaugh Bros Retail Market
  59. Hollabaugh Brothers
  60. Hulls Video Express
  61. Hunterstown Diner
  62. Idaville UB in Christ Church
  63. Iron Springs Brethren in Christ 
  64. JD & Sons
  65. Liahona Girls Camp
  66. Living in Faith Evangelical Church
  67. Lower Marsh Creek Preb. CH
  68. Meadow Brook GC
  69. Middle Creek Bible Conference
  70. Middle Creek Manor
  71. Morning Hour Chapel
  72. Mountain View Convenience
  73. Mountain View Golf Club
  74. Mulligan Macduffer
  75. New Oxford Family Diner
  76. Olivia’s Restaurant Inc. 
  77. Open Arms Christian Fellowship
  78. Orrtanna United Methodist Church
  79. Pape Camp
  80. PDQ Food Mart
  81. Pizza Leone
  82. Quail Valley GC
  83. R & L #2
  84. R & L 3
  85. R & L Orchard Co.
  86. Red Carpet Inn
  87. Rutters Store 17
  88. Rutters Store 36
  89. Sanders Square
  90. Scooters Mountain Side Tavern
  91. Scozzaro’s Old Mill Inn
  92. Sensations Bar & Grill
  93. Seven Eleven GBG 28225
  94. Smokehouse Tavern
  95. Speedway 94
  96. St. Mary’s Catholic Church
  97. Stahler Hampton Diner
  98. Sunoco Travel Center
  99. Taverna 5450
  100. Trailway Speedway
  101. Two Mile Inn
  102. Wendy’s at Cross Keys Center
  103. Western Inn
  104. Woodlands Camp J B Peters Inc. 
  105. Yiannis Greenwood Tavern
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