Florida not immune to lead in drinking water

by Jim Waymer, originally published on March 18, 2016


Florida has its limestone aquifers to thank for shielding most drinking water from lead contamination off corroding pipes and plumbing fixtures.

But the Sunshine State is not immune from lead spikes in drinking water, which can cause brain damage, lower IQ and lead to other disabilities. There’s no safe level of lead exposure for children. And in adults, lead causes hypertension, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems.

According to a FLORIDA TODAY analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection data:

•Almost 50,000 people in Florida were potentially exposed to unsafe lead levels in drinking water between January 2012 and June 2015. During that time frame, 64 water systems exceeded the federal standard for lead a combined 81 times. These were systems where more than 10 percent of testing samples exceeded 15 parts per billion for lead, the level that triggers water operators to notify the public, take corrective actions such as corrosion control, or to increase monitoring.

•Of the 81 instances, 19 (23 percent) were in Hillsborough County, 10 (12 percent) were in Polk County and 7 (8.6 percent) in Marion County. The rest were scattered throughout Florida. None popped up in Brevard County, but a few water systems in the county had individual samples spike at as much as 10 times the federal standard.

•While almost 99 percent of the 1,600 Florida water systems tested annually fall below the federal lead standard, the highest 10 percent of samples can spike several orders of magnitude higher than the federal standard.

•Some of the worst lead problems can be found in small, old private water systems, mobile home parks, churches, schools and daycare centers. Thousands of Florida children test at blood lead levels above what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers safe.

Like elsewhere in the country, Florida’s aging water distribution systems and treatment plants pose uncertain risks of lead leaching off aged pipes. The EPA estimates Florida needs $16.5 billion over the next 20 years to fix aging drinking water infrastructure, $10 billion of that for transmission and distribution infrastructure.

The recent exposure of thousands in Flint, Michigan to unsafe lead levels underscores the ticking time bomb of aging infrastructure. While lead-based paint in old housing is considered a significant source of lead exposure, recent research shows the lead burden from drinking water could be higher than previously thought. In Florida, most lead pipes have been removed, but solder used to join together pipes lurks as a potential threat whenever water turns corrosive.

“It’s the solder that’s the biggest issue,” said Thomas Waite, an environmental engineer at Florida Institute of Technology. “In a way, there’s almost no way to control this, because everybody’s home is a little different.”

Federal rules require water systems test annually, every other year, or every three years, depending on the water system’s previous compliance. And those tests must target the oldest housing at highest risk of lead or copper contamination, taking into account the presence of lead-copper pipes and lead solder. Operators solicit volunteers, whom they rely on to follow water sampling instructions. But testing methods and results can vary wildly, experts say, with tap water turning from healthy to toxic just days later or varying drastically within the same distribution system.


Smaller systems face toughest lead challenges

Lingering lead problems surface most often in Florida’s mobile home parks, RV parks and other small, private water systems, according to federal and state environmental databases and documents. Often owners of small systems can’t afford necessary fixes, allowing problems to fester. The professionals who operate and maintain Florida’s water systems say it’s up to all homeowners to figure out if they have any lead water service lines, solder or plumbing fixtures and get their water tested if they suspect a problem.

“There’s a lot of things that can contribute to it,” said Jim Witteck, of J.C. Witteck Utility Services in Vero Beach. “It can even be old rusty storage tanks.”

Sometimes lead levels spike from seldom-used taps.

A sample at Orange Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Pierce tested at 23.5 parts per billion for lead last year. A water fountain there tested at almost twice that level the previous year, well above the 15 parts per billion level that triggers more monitoring or corrective actions.

“A lot of it is usage in the particular tap that you’re sampling,” Witteck said. “They sit, and they’re not used frequently. This is the whole problem with representative samples … It’s an acceptable practice to flush prior to your sample time.”

Owners of small water systems that lack money or the will to maintain their systems view certified water service operators as inconvenient whistleblowers, Witteck said. So they seek out operators who will help them look the other way to save on maintenance, he said.


Sampling methods also can water down lead risks

But even when testing protocols are followed properly, the results don’t always capture the extent of the lead risk. Sometimes, problems are missed or masked, environmental engineers say.

For example, a water system might test with a 90th percentile lead value well under the federal action level, and yet have some of its samples measuring at rates that are through the roof.

According to Florida Department of Environmental Protection documents:

•In September, Summit Cove, a condo community of about 226 people off U.S. 1 in Micco, in Brevard County, tested at a 90th percentile of 8.6 parts per billion. But one building tested at 152 parts per billion. The water operater said the community is notified any time there is an exceedance.

•In August, Ranch Oaks Estates, a mobile home park of about 164 people in Hillsborough County, tested within the federal action level for lead, at 8 parts per billion, but one sample tested at 6,000 parts per billion, 400 times the federal standard. A typographical error in the consumer notice letter put the lead level at 600 parts per billion. A subsequent test in early October measured 200 parts per billion.

•Palm Beach County’s Lake Region plant — which serves 30,536 people — had a 90th percentile of only 2.13 parts per billion in samples drawn in August and September. But the highest of the 36 samples hit 900 parts per billion, 60 times the federal standard.

•Last fall, MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa thad a 90th percentile value of 10 parts per billion, but four results were higher, and two were much higher: 234 parts per billion and 610 parts per billion.

•In September, Talquin’s Leon County East Regional system — which serves about 1,654 people — had a 90th percentile lead value of 3 parts per billion. But one of the 10 samples taken hit 50 parts per billion.

“In some utilities, the way the sampling is done can miss some of the lead that is there,” said Sheldon Masters, senior environmental engineer at Corona Environmental Consulting in Philadelphia.

Masters has seen cases in which water samples from the same tap tested at very low lead levels, only to have a subsequent sample test five times higher.

“By collecting one sample, you can’t necessarily say the water is safe to drink,” Masters added. “It’s extremely, extremely variable, even across the distribution system and a single tap … It’s just inherent in what the material is. There are always these random or semi-random events.”

And water conservation measures in recent decades may have had the unintended consequence of exacerbating lead problems, Masters said, by increasing the time water reacts with the interior of pipes.

“We’re encouraging consumers to use less water,” Masters explained. “Because of that, the water age in the building is much higher than it was years ago.”

In general, research shows the longer water spends between the treatment plant and the tap, the more opportunity for problems. Spikes in lead and other contaminants tend to happen at the extremes: those closest and those farthest from the treatment plants. Too much chlorine can chemically pit copper pipes and dissolve lead solder, but lack of chlorine allows biological corrosion of pipes.

People concerned about lead can ask their utility to test their water, Masters said, or have a lab do so for about $20 per sample.


Even a “clean” report could be misleading

Researchers at Virginia Tech accused Flint, Michigan officials of “gaming the system” on lead testing, only sampling lower-risk homes and failing to resample homes that tested high the previous year.

The number of samples drawn is based on the size of the population served by the water system.

Locally, the city of Cocoa, for example, must collect samples from at least 50 homes in its distribution area built between January 1983 and June 1986. The homes must have copper plumbing and no water softener or filter system. Samples must be collected from a tap that has not been used for a minimum of 6 hours.

But, ultimately, it’s up to the volunteer to do it right.

“We actually send a little video out to them that shows them how to do it,” said Tim Van Deventer, plant superintendent for Palm Bay. “The first water that comes out of your kitchen sink, grab that water, don’t flush it.”

“It’s kind of up to them,” Van Deventer added. “We keep a list of the samples we’ve collected and we try to sample the following year … Maybe because of the Flint issue, we may have some more volunteers.”

Again, experts warn that one sample is only a snapshot, and consumers should read public notices carefully.

Consumer reports sent out last year by Palm Bay cited a 90th percentile lead sample of 6.2 parts per billion, from sampling in August 2013, putting the city under the federal action level. Notices to the homeowners who volunteered their water start off: “Good news!” … and go on to assert that corrective actions are not needed with the city’s water. But three of the 55 samples exceeded 15 parts per billion, the highest at 85 parts per billion, almost six times the EPA standard. That was from a just-rebuilt bathroom sink with old fixtures that hadn’t been used in a year, Kimber Beard said of the water drawn from her Tarkio Street home at the time.

Beard said she worries more these days about bacteria than lead in her water. She has an osmosis system under her sink and drinks bottled water. “I’m not confident (in the water), it worries me,” she said.

Louise Scepka’s water also tested just above the action level, at 16 parts per billion, at her 45-year-old home off Turkey Creek Drive in Palm Bay. She distrusts her tap water, so drinks bottled water, instead. She’s not sure if the service lines to her home or the city water, or both, caused the problem.

“I don’t know if they did anything about it or not,” Scepka said.

Even when neighborhoods fork out special assessments to convert private systems to new city water pipes, old lead-containing service lines and plumbing fixtures can remain.

“I would say most customers don’t have a clue whether they have lead in their solder or not,” Van Deventer said.

In most instances, just allowing taps to flush out for several minutes can make the water safe, he said.

Limestone aquifers buffer most Florida drinking water from lead

Florida’s limestone aquifers create higher alkalinity in the raw water, which buffers from the corrosion that can leach lead from pipes and soldered joints, as happened in Flint, Michigan.

“That helps sequester anything in the pipes going on, so Florida has an advantage there,” said Waite, of Florida Institute of Technology.

But when Florida water systems don’t have access to good, stable groundwater and must tap the more acidic and spotty groundwater, rivers or lakes, lead can sometimes became an issue.

And old homes with old pipe can present problems

Plumbers favored lead piping and plumbing until 1930, when copper replaced it for service lines. Galvanized pipes were used for interior plumbing between 1920 and 1950. And copper pipe used between 1970 and 1986 used lead solder until it was banned in 1986.

But tearing out and replacing all the old pipe isn’t cheap.

“Nobody’s going through the cost of it, it’s too expensive,” said Kipp Cooper, of Classic Plumbing of Brevard, LLC. “Melbourne’s got a bunch of old homes, too, down University (Boulevard), all that stuff of Eau Gallie Boulevard, all that’s cast iron.”

In late February, the Obama Administration urged states to double-check lead and copper monitoring procedures. And to boost confidence in public drinking water, EPA said states should make lead and copper testing results and the location of lead water pipes available online.

Werner Troesken, professor of economic history at University of Pittsburgh, said the feds should conduct a systematic epidemiological study of the health effects and a cost-benefit analysis of removing all the lead pipe. Troesken wrote the 2007 book, “The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster,” which traces the 150-year history of lead pipes in America and the scientific and public health debate.

“No matter what setting you look at, when you look at the effects, they’re almost always larger than you anticipate,” Troesken said.

Cooper said, ultimately, there is probably only so much that can be done. He clings to a plumber’s pragmatism about the lead issue.

“Something’s always going to get you sooner or later.”


Blood lead levels in Florida

Florida has about 200 lead poisoning cases per year in children under age six. In 2012, CDC data shows about 3,600 children of 177,750 tested in Florida (2 percent) had blood lead levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter or greater, compared to two years earlier, when 7,449 children of 203,401 (3.6 percent) tested had blood lead levels greater than or equal to that amount.

•Nationally, the percentage of children who tested at 10 micrograms per deciliter of greater has dropped from 7.6 percent in 1997 to .53 percent in 2014, according to CDC.

•3,605 children in Florida tested at elevated blood lead levels in 2012, including 21 children in Brevard, ranking it 26th among the number of cases by county. Here were the 10 counties with the most cases:

1. Miami-Dade — 828

2. Hillsborough Co — 381

3. Broward County — 285

4. Duval County — 282

5. Palm Beach Couny — 244

6. Polk County — 184

7. Orange County — 147

8. Pinellas County — 91

9. Alachua County — 73

10. Volusia County — 71

Source: CDC, Florida Department of Health

How much is 15 parts per billion?

Imagine 15 kernels of corn in a 45-foot high, 16-foot diameter silo, or 15 silver dollars in a roll of silver dollars stretching from Detroit to Salt Lake City.

Source: “Reporting on Risk,” Michigan Sea Grant

National Lead Information Center at 800-424-LEAD; call the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water

Hotline at 1-800-426-4791; or contact your health care provider

What to do

Some faucet and pitcher filters can remove lead from drinking water. If you use a filter to remove lead, be sure you get one that is certified to remove lead by NSF International. For information, visit www.epa.gov/safewater/ lead, or call the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791.

Source: EPA

Florida community water systems with a lead action level exceedence

•2013 — 999 water systems with lead samples, 18 had a lead exceedance (98.2 percent without)

•2014 — 1,673 water systems with lead samples, 16 had a lead exceedance (99 percent without)

•2015 — 1,663 water systems, 21 with a lead exceedance (98.8 percent without)

Source: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

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