COLUMBUS, Ohio — If you’re concerned that your tap water might have elevated levels of lead in it, the first place to start is with your community’s water system, said a water quality specialist with The Ohio State University.
“Public water systems in the U.S. have to provide safe drinking water not just as it leaves the water treatment plant, but throughout the distribution system and a home’s plumbing,” said Karen Mancl, a professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering and specialist with Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
Mancl has been following reports about the situation in Flint, Michigan, where lead contamination has occurred because water used from the Flint River was corrosive and allowed lead in pipes to leach into the water. The Sebring, Ohio, area is dealing with a similar issue on a much smaller scale.
Public water systems must provide their customers with an annual Consumer Confidence Report that includes information about the quality of the water they supply, Mancl said.
Those reports include results of monitoring conducted in homes in the community that could be vulnerable to increased levels of lead — older homes with lead pipes, for example, she said.
The Consumer Confidence Report is often sent to customers with their water bill, but Mancl said people often don’t read it closely.
Still, consumers can request a copy of the most recent report at any time: “It’s a public record.” Many water systems provide the reports on their websites.
“I would start with the report,” Mancl said. “If there are no issues regarding lead, I would feel comfortable with the water supply.
“But if you ask for the report and start getting the runaround, I would get suspicious. The water system should have these reports on hand and be able to provide them.”
Lead can get into drinking water when corrosive water leaches lead from service pipelines, from pipes in an older home’s plumbing, from lead solder on copper pipes, or even from lead parts in faucets. Federal law prohibited the use of lead in plumbing and fixtures after June 1986, but Mancl said many homes are still at risk.
Consumers who are concerned about lead levels and want to get their water tested should contact a lab that provides water testing and ask for tests for lead, copper and pH and a corrosion index test, Mancl said. The cost for these tests varies. OSU Extension has a 2010 fact sheet online providing a list of labs in Ohio that perform water testing at ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/AEX-315.
When collecting a water sample for a corrosion test, Mancl said to allow the water to stand in the water lines overnight or longer, use a laboratory container to collect the sample from an indoor faucet, and deliver the sample to the lab in person or by using an overnight delivery service.
Developing and maintaining a safe, quality public water supply involves complex issues, and public officials should be aware of what’s necessary to provide safe water to the public, Mancl said. Townships and small communities that want guidance may contact her to schedule a three-session workshop to learn what it takes to manage such facilities and keep them operating.
Mancl has also written two Extension bulletins, Water Systems for Small Communities and Safe Drinking Water: How Can We Provide It in Our Community? They are for sale on OSU Extension’s eStore, estore.osu-extension.org.
One of the regulations that public water supply operators must comply with involves notifying the public through local media whenever there’s a problem with the water, Mancl said.
“When Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1996, they felt so strongly about public communication that they imposed monetary penalties, criminal penalties and job loss if a water system fails to keep the public informed,” she said.
“From the reports I’ve been reading recently, it appears that this hasn’t always happened. If true, that could be considered criminal. You can’t just send a report in to authorities but not communicate a problem to customers.”
Mancl, who also has an appointment with the college’s research arm, the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, hopes the situations in Flint and Sebring bring more awareness to the real issues communities need to know about providing safe drinking water.
“In the United States, thanks to the Safe Drinking Water Act, you should be able to go to the tap and turn on the water knowing that it’s safe. No other place in the world has that kind of law. We are the only country to assure a safe public water supply no matter where you are.
“With these recent situations, there’s clearly something afoot. But I don’t want people to be unnecessarily freaked out about their water. Most water systems are very professional, and if there’s something wrong you’ll see it reported in the news right away.”
For more information on the water-related programs that Mancl provides, see her website at setll.osu.edu.