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Opinion | It’s not just trust that’s lost in Flint, some water remains unsafe

In January of last year, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) declared Flint’s drinking water “restored” - citing tests showing that 90 percent of residential samples had lead levels at or below 6 parts per billion (ppb). This means that Flint is legally complying with the lead and copper rule. But that does not mean residents can safely drink from their tap.

Related: In Flint, trust is lost. And bottled water supplies are running low
Related: After Flint, Michigan toughened lead rules. Now water utilities are suing.

“The way Lead and Copper Rule compliance is calculated, 10 percent of sampled homes can have any level of lead whatsoever and the water system can still meet the lead action level,” Elin Betanzo, founder of Safe Water Engineer LLC and leading expert said.

So that means your home can have lead levels in the 100s and as long as you are in the 10 percent - the city will still be complying with federal standards. Low vs. high lead levels are misleading anyway, even if your home’s lead levels reads 4 ppb, your tap water could still negatively affect your health.

An exceedance of 15 ppb by more than 10 percent of homes is not a health-based standard, it is just a methodology to indicate that the water distribution system’s corrosion control methods are not effective enough. Fifteen ppb may be the national “action level” for lead, but absolutely NO amount of lead is safe for human consumption according to the EPA’s maximum contaminant level goals.

The following quote comes directly from the EPA webpage: “The EPA has set the maximum contaminant level (MCL) goal for lead in drinking water at zero because lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels. Lead is persistent, and it can bioaccumulate in the body over time. ”

However, MCLs are technically non-enforceable health goals - reserved for contaminant levels in drinking water at which no adverse health effects are likely to occur with an adequate margin of safety.

The Safe Drinking Water Act should be legally requiring municipalities to provide drinking water that can be labeled safe using health-based standards but that is just not the current case for lead.

A recent Bridge Magazine article suggested that since lead levels in Flint were consistent with other Michigan cities, residents should just trust their tap. To assure the people of Flint that their water is safe, simply because lead levels now fall within the range of other Michigan cities, should give every reader pause. [Editor’s note: Actually, Bridge wrote that Flint lead levels are below federal thresholds, but noted that meeting this metric does not fully protect public health.]

Should Flint accept the health risks of drinking lead, just because other cities are? Lead is bio-accumulative, meaning it builds up inside the body at a rate faster than the body can get rid of it. From years of drinking water with extreme lead levels, Flint residents are even more susceptible to health effects because of this bioaccumulation.

“Flint residents now have a body burden of lead that cannot be removed, so they must remain even more vigilant about their future lead exposure than those who have not been drinking the water in Flint. The two most effective strategies for this are using lead removing filters or bottled water.” Betanzo says in her letter to the Detroit News.

The fact is no city and no resident in the United States should accept anything other than safe drinking water from their local municipal water source. And according to the Environmental Protection Agency, safe means absolutely no lead, at all.

Because of our aging infrastructure and the composition of our pipes and fixtures, attaining zero levels of lead at every tap is not currently feasible, but that doesn’t mean residents should not take additional action. Filters that remove lead can greatly reduce the amount of lead in water if properly used and maintained. And we should be pressing our elected officials to do better, both to ensure that corrosion control is used and closely monitored, and to remove our lead pipes as quickly as possible.

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