At least 2% of US public water systems are like Flint’s

Is your community’s water tainted with lead? The data might not have been reported. ehrlif/

At least 2% of US public water systems are like Flint’s – Americans just don’t hear about them

Courtesy of Laura Pangallozzi, Binghamton University, State University of New York

More than five years after Flint’s water crisis first hit the news, the city has successfully lowered the lead levels in its water.

The most recently available testing, from the second half of 2018, puts the lead in Flint’s water at 4 parts per billion. That’s well below the level, 15 ppb, that the federal government currently regards as dangerous for public health.

No amount of lead in water is safe, but the lower level in Flint represents a substantial improvement over the 27 ppb reported by the Virgina Tech Water Study at the peak of the crisis in April 2015.

However, even Flint’s highest levels were not atypical for water systems that have problems. Most reports of elevated lead levels cluster in the range between 15 and 20 ppb.

Where lead problems occur

The federal Lead and Copper Rule requires public water utilities to sample home tap water yearly in neighborhoods most likely to face contamination.

If more than 10% of samples exceed 15 parts per billion of lead, the rule states that the water system must take steps to control pipe corrosion – the main source of lead in residential tap water – as well as to inform the public and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Water systems, especially in rural areas, can report much higher levels than the EPA cutoff. In 2017, for example, an elementary school in Tulare County, California, home to agricultural laborers, reported lead levels of 4,600 ppb. The school distributed bottled water to its students and replaced its well. The same year, a senior living center in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, had lead levels of 3,428 ppb. Such drinking water is truly poisonous, especially for children.

Water systems with lead levels over 15 ppb

Between 2014 and 2016, a total of 1,430 water systems reported lead levels over 15 parts per billion. Most were small and based in New England and the Middle Atlantic states.

Can you tell us about your background as it relates to intellectual property? I earned my law degree at Stanford Law School and took numerous courses in intellectual property and business law (as well constitutional law and international law). I did my third year paper on parallel importation of products protected intellectual property, and this work has been the basis for numerous publications, including a 2018 book from Cambridge University Press. I have taught intellectual property law courses at numerous law schools for nearly 25 years and am the author of several law school casebooks in the field of intellectual property law. In addition to my scholarly work, I have served as a consultant in several cases involving intellectual property. When I was growing up, I remember learning about the genome being mapped – can you explain what that means and how much we have progressed since then? The Human Genome Project was a multi-country, multi-university project funded by the National Institute of Health, launched in 1990 and declared complete in 2003. The goal of the project was to identify the nucleotides, or chemical codes, for all the genes in the human body, over 3 billion base pairs. After 13 years, the mapping was considered completed, but do keep in mind that the mapping is based on a composite across all samples that the many researchers were studying. So there is much more to learn about the specific genes in any given individual and how they work.” In addition to the NIH sponsored project, there was private sector initiative as well, and many companies are working to further understand the chemical structure and function of genes. Can you help folks without medical or legal backgrounds understand the current state of gene editing? It is perhaps best to think of two ways genes are manipulated. One is recombinant technology that allows for inserting new genes in existing organisms in order to create an enhanced organism. You can think about recombinant technology as doing in a lab what happens in nature whenever two individuals reproduce. Recombinant DNA technology has been with us for over three decades and is responsible for genetically modified crops as well as modified animals. A relatively new technology called CRISP-R allows for gene editing in the body of a living organism, much like surgery allows for removal or implantation of tissue or mechanical/electronic devices. This current technology is what the press refers to as gene editing. It is controversial because of the ethical implications and the still developing science of how such editing would work. There are legal debates ongoing over the patents, and much of the application is still in the preliminary phases. My brother in law who is in residency says they use 3D printing for organ operations is that related to gene editing or growth of stem cells? Will printers soon be able to print actual organ cells instead of plastic for medical procedures? 3D printing allows for the printing of materials beyond the traditional paper and ink; it can permit printing of almost any type of material, including organic matter like tissue. But 3D printing of full organs is still a ways away. Right now single cell organisms have been successfully printed. 3D printing can be used in operations to make certain implants or sutures in some cases. Gene editing and stem cells are separate from 3 D printing, but as the technologies develop, there will be overlap. What are the current rules on gene editing in the U.S.? What about Europe? What about China? The rules are still in flux but there are ethical prohibitions against the use of gene editing on humans and for therapeutic uses. Is this for research purposes, cosmetic or medical – and how do they differ in these places? Research is regulated through restrictions on human subject experimentation. Cosmetic and medical applications are still a way off for ordinary use and except for unsubstantiated reports from some country like China have not occurred. What fields are gene editing used for? Can regular people get gene editing and why would they want to? The applications of gene editing could be broad, including perhaps removing genes associated with proclivities for cancer. The applications will depend in part on improved understanding of the functions of identified genes. Can you give your predictions for gene editing regulation, and how it may evolve over the next 5 to 10 years? Regulations will catch up with applications. My sense is that there will be concerns over use of gene editing in a selective way that reinforce social stereotypes based on gender, ethnicity, and disability. There will be serious issues about cost and access to technologies, especially if researchers discover uses of the technology that can extend the duration and quality of life.

Large urban water systems tend to have lower contaminant levels than systems in rural areas, including for lead, because they have expert staff to run facilities. But when contamination occurs in urban systems, it affects more people. Flint’s water system serves 71,500 people and its woes drew the attention of the Obama administration. In 2004, when Washington, D.C. had similar lead levels, Congress intervened to demand a rapid fix.

Right now, Newark, New Jersey – an area that I have studied for more than 10 years – is in the hot seat for lead, but has not drawn similar attention. In June the city reported to the EPA lead samples more than 2.5 times higher than that of Flint at the peak of the crisis, the highest level in a two-year running problem.

The Pequannock facility, one of Newark’s two water treatment plants and the source of the issue, distributes water to the city and several surrounding communities. The Newark Water Department serves a total of more than 290,000 people.

Of cities with more than 100,000 in population reporting issues since the beginning of 2017, nearest in rank to Newark in terms of levels of lead is Pittsburgh; then Trenton, New Jersey; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Suez Water, headquartered in Hackensack, New Jersey, serving multiple communities; Portland, Oregon; Providence, Rhode Island; and Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Most cities reporting issues are in New England and the Middle Atlantic States, where older housing is more likely to have lead pipes that run from the water main into the home.

Lead in urban water systems

Since early 2017, a handful of urban water systems have reported a significant number of samples above 15 parts per billion (ppb) of lead, the cutoff level established by the federal Lead and Copper Rule.

Shining a light on the problem: Missing data

What’s more, an undetermined number of water systems with lead problems in their water do not report heightened lead levels to the federal government, in violation of the law.

An investigative report commissioned by Congress, publicly released in October 2017, showed that about 2% of public water systems across the country exceeded the federal limit on lead between 2014 and 2016.

The report says that the number of water systems that do not report their problems at all is understated – in some cases badly so. Flint itself initially failed to report its elevated lead levels to the EPA. The congressional report, compiled by the Government Accountability Office, found a host of problems on this score, concluding that “data available from the EPA likely understate the number of sample results, violations and enforcement actions.”

As of December 2016, the end date of the GAO investigation, only about 47% of states had reported as required on their corrosion control methods, the primary way a lead problem is addressed.

The report recommended that the EPA require states to report data for small water systems, those most likely to fail to report, but the EPA folded this initiative into a revision of the Lead and Copper Rule that has not happened.

Without better data collection on lead contamination, Americans will never know how bad the problem really is in their communities.

Laura Pangallozzi, Visiting Assistant Professor of Geography, Binghamton University, State University of New York

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.