Many U.S. cities appear to be manipulating the results of water tests used to detect lead levels, violating federal law and impacting the health of millions of Americans, according to a report in today's Washington Post.
"Some cities, including Philadelphia and Boston, have thrown out tests that show high readings or have avoided testing homes most likely to have lead," the article reads. "In New York City, the nation's largest water provider has for the past three years assured its 9.3 million customers that its water was safe because the lead content fell below federal limits. But the city has withheld from regulators hundreds of test results that would have raised lead levels above the safety standard in two of those years, according to records.
"The result is that communities large and small may have a false sense of security about the quality of their water and that utilities can avoid spending money to correct the problem," the report asserts.
The Washington Poststudied 65 large water systems whose reported lead levels have lingered near or exceeded federal standards. The newspaper staff examined federal, state and utility records and found that dozens of utilities minimized the lead contamination, overlooked corrective requirements, and did not turn over data to regulators.
"In some cases, state regulators have helped the utilities avoid costly fixes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is supposed to ensure that states are monitoring utilities, has also let communities ignore requirements to reduce lead. In 2003, records show, the EPA ordered utilities to remedy violations in just 14 cases, less than one-tenth of the number ordered in 1997," the article explains.
Collectively, these records shed light on a national problem. This comes only months after the District's lead levels were proven to be among the highest in the country a problem city officials concealed for nearly a year. The documents from other cities reveal similar efforts to hide high lead readings, taking advantage of minimal national and state oversight and regulations plagued by loopholes.
Jim Elder, who headed the EPA's drinking water program from 1991 to 1995, told The Post he believes that utilities are engaging in "widespread fraud and manipulation."
"It's time to reconsider whether water utilities can be trusted with this crucial responsibility of protecting the public. I fear for the safety of our nation's drinking water," Elder, now a water consultant, is quoted as saying. "Apparently, it's a real crapshoot as to what's going to come out of the tap and whether it will be healthy or not."