Utilities Address Lead Contamination in Drinking Water

Contamination resulting from corrosion in household plumbing is a problem that many water utilities continue to battle.
Utilities Address Lead Contamination in Drinking Water

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Late last year, as part of routine testing, Wisconsin-based utility Wausau Water Works discovered elevated levels of lead in the drinking water of some of the city’s homes and businesses. And, as is often the case with lead contamination, it had little to do with the infrastructure the utility is responsible for maintaining.

According to a report in the Wausau Daily Herald, tests confirmed lead is not present in city water mains. Rather, the culprit is the corrosion of lead materials in household plumbing.

“The water in Wausau, being an older community, has many homes and businesses with lead service laterals, lead pipes or lead solder inside the home or business and possibly even faucets that contain lead,” Deb Geier, utility resources manager, says in the report.

In high amounts, lead can cause serious health problems for the human body — brain or kidney damage, and interference with the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to all parts of the body. Infants, young children and pregnant women are at the greatest risk.

That’s why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency developed the “Lead and Copper Rule” in 1991 as part of the Safe Drinking Water Act. A utility is required to take action if lead concentrations exceed 15 ppb in more than 10 percent of tested samples. With four properties containing lead pipes or soldering exceeding the limits out of 30 properties tested, Wausau Water Works met that action level.

The utility is now in the process of coming back into compliance — conducting further testing and looking at possibly replacing as many as 424 lead service laterals. Even lateral replacement would only be a partial solution. A utility can replace the portion of the lateral up to the property line. Anything beyond that is up to the property owner.

Wausau Water Works is not alone. Utilities across the country are struggling with this predicament. Many introduce chemicals in an attempt to produce water that won’t be as corrosive on lead piping, but the long-term solution — though expensive — is to replace the lead.

Another Wisconsin water utility is serving as a prime example on how to achieve that long-term solution. The Madison Water Utility launched a program in 2000 that in a little over a decade saw the replacement of 8,000 lead waterlines, nearly all of the city’s lead service. A key piece of the program was an ordinance adopted by the Common Council requiring property owners to replace their lead service lateral as well, so that the entire line was taken care of — not just the portion beyond the property line under the utility’s jurisdiction. To help customers with that replacement cost, the utility paid for half of the property owner’s bill up to $1,000.

According to the Madison Water Utility, the EPA has taken notice of the lead pipe replacement program and is looking toward the utility and others for information that could someday be helpful in the battle to solve the lead issue once and for all.

Meanwhile, utilities like Wausau Water Works continue to do what they can to gradually address the problem. Part of that is educating utility customers.

To minimize the amount of lead in drinking water, Wausau Water Works recommends:

  • Flushing faucets used for drinking and cooking anytime the water has sat for six hours or more.
  • Drawing water from the cold-water tap and heating it rather than using hot water for cooking. Hot water can leach lead more quickly than cold water.
  • Considering replacement of the service lateral if it is lead. In Wausau, Geier says that the property owner can coordinate with Wausau Water Works and the utility will replace its portion of the lateral at the same time.
  • Having an electrician check indoor wiring to ensure that grounding wires are not connected to water pipes.
  • Replacing older fixtures with lead-free fixtures.

Sources: Wausau Daily Herald, City of Madison, EPA

Photo Credit: “Water from a tap” by Velella is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0


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