Goodman is a staff writer for WebMD. Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News.
March 13, 2018 -- Georgia officials will more closely monitor how utilities in the state test water for lead.
For the first time, the Georgia Division of Environmental Protection (EPD) will check the addresses where water systems take their samples to be sure those sites are at the highest risk for lead contamination, says Lewis Hays, who is the EPD’s watershed compliance program manager.
Hays says the EPD will do regular “desk audits” of testing forms and follow those with site visits. The agency also plans to develop an enforcement response of utilities caught cheating by testing low-risk sites.
Federal rules require water utilities to sample and test tap water for lead from time to time. These samples are supposed to come from homes that have a high risk for lead problems because of the age of their plumbing. Utilities usually sample 30 to 50 homes every 3 years.
Failure to test high-risk homes was one reason the lead contamination of the water supply in Flint, MI, wasn't found for nearly a year after the city’s water supply was switched to the Flint River.
But a six-part investigation by Georgia Health News and WebMD in 2017 found that many water utilities fall short by testing sites that shouldn’t qualify and, in some cases, misrepresenting those sites on official forms submitted to the state.
Out of 105 midsize and large water systems surveyed in Georgia last year:
- About half of them -- 58 -- have tested some sites that have a lower risk of lead problems instead of focusing solely on those that have the highest risk.
- 49 of those water departments had also labeled some lower-risk sites as higher risk, giving the appearance they were following testing guidelines, when they were not.
Other stories in the series showed how people in homes that had tested high for lead had not been notified, as required by law, and how public health officials’ slow response to a child’s elevated lead levels let a landlord off the hook for lead poisoning and left other renters at risk. The reporting also found records pointing to risky lead water pipes -- or service lines -- remaining in some parts of the state, including metro Atlanta.
Environmental advocates said they were pleased by the state’s action.
“Georgia's new commitment is a step in the right direction and one that all state agencies should imitate,” says Yanna Lambrinidou, PhD, an affiliate faculty member in the Science and Technology in Society Program at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg.
“The Lead and Copper Rule’s requirement that water utilities monitor for lead at highest-risk homes and sample in a way that captures worst-case lead levels is foundational. When utilities fail to meet it, they can miss severe contamination and leave residents vulnerable to chronic and acute exposures for months and even years,” said Lambrinidou, who is also founder of the nonprofit group Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives.
But she added that the results of the auditing and enforcement process should be open to the public to ensure that the rules that are designed to protect “work as intended.”
Other experts echoed her thoughts.
“We are glad to see the important steps that Georgia’s Division of Environmental Protection is taking to address the shortcomings in its lead sampling revealed by last year’s articles from Georgia Health News and WebMD. Without their investigative report, I am not sure how these problems would have been found and fixed,” said Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.
The CDC says no amount of lead in blood is safe.
Lead is especially dangerous to children, who absorb as much as 90% more of it into their bodies than adults. Researchers have found that even at low levels, lead can damage a child’s brain, lowering intelligence and harming the ability to control their behavior and attention.
For 25 years, state environmental regulators in Georgia have operated on an honor system, relying on water systems to properly select and report the sites where they have sampled water for lead.
The EPD also said it will train all of its drinking water personnel in Atlanta and other districvts in the state so that all are able to respond to lead and copper compliance issues.