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Penn State researcher: Lead is most likely a problem for well water

Grayling Stefek, 5, has his blood drawn during a free lead-testing event and family fun night for children on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016, at Eisenhower Elementary school in Flint, Mich. The Flint water crisis has other government leaders thinking about the issue of lead poisoning.
Grayling Stefek, 5, has his blood drawn during a free lead-testing event and family fun night for children on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016, at Eisenhower Elementary school in Flint, Mich. The Flint water crisis has other government leaders thinking about the issue of lead poisoning. AP/ The Flint Journal-MLive.com

For Pennsylvanians watching the lead contamination problem in Flint, Michigan, and wondering whether their drinking water is safe, one water-resources specialist at Penn State University says residents with private wells, especially, should consider having their water tested.

Pennsylvania ranks second-highest in the nation for the number of people using well water for their homes – behind only Michigan, said Bryan Swistock, a researcher with Penn State Extension, a federally funded office housed in the school’s college of agricultural sciences.

Private wells are more likely sources of unsafe levels of lead compared with public water systems such as the one now under scrutiny in Flint, Swistock said. He’s studied the issue for 28 years and works with rural residents to test their well supplies and to treat lead and other problems.

Homes using wells are more susceptible to a lead issue, Swistock said, because it’s up to the homeowners to know whether there’s a problem with the water. Large water supplies in urban areas are regulated by state agencies, such as Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection.

The Penn State Extension office studied 700 private wells in Pennsylvania in 2007 and found that 12 percent of homes were using water with high lead levels.

“And zero percent of those people knew (previously) that they had lead in the water,” Swistock said.

Lead has no obvious appearance, taste or odor in drinking water. Warning signs of a possible lead problem are found when copper pipes corrode and become leaky, or when there’s a blue-green stain or metallic taste.

Outrage over how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency handled Flint’s water issue has prompted some lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., to call for federal officials to have more authority to tell residents whether their water is dangerous. Casey is supporting a bill that would require the EPA to notify the public if state officials don’t alert residents within 15 days.

Flint’s problem, Casey said in a conference call with reporters Thursday, “is a test for the country. . . . We’ve got to take action where we can.”

At least seven public water suppliers in Centre County over recent years were required to notify residents and correct problems related to high lead levels, according to public records from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection.

But state regulators don’t have jurisdiction over private wells in Pennsylvania. More than 3.5 million people in the state – nearly one-fourth of the population – live in homes using well water, according to Penn State Extension. Residents can test their well water for lead using kits ranging in cost from $15 to $100.

Residents with new homes using water from public suppliers, he said, are at the lowest risk of lead contamination.

Still, public records from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection show that at least seven public water suppliers in Centre County over recent years were required to notify residents and correct problems related to high lead levels.

Health officials found 20 systems with “significant” monitoring or reporting violations in 2014, according to the most recent statewide report available. In 2013, officials had found 14 systems had violations, some of which had problems with monitoring and reporting more than once during the year.

Inspections in 2014 also revealed that 121 systems had violated rules related to follow-up or routine monitoring and reporting. And 15 public water systems had violated required “treatment techniques.”

There are nearly 9,000 public systems subject to state regulations. The locations of water systems found in violation were not available. Officials with the Department of Environmental Protection did not return phone calls from McClatchy on Thursday.

Casey said Thursday that he was unaware of specific Pennsylvania communities affected by high lead levels or of any instances of the state not notifying residents of issues. But, he said, “Flint is in many ways a wake-up call for the country.”

Anna Douglas: 202-383-6012, @ADouglasNews

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