News

Lead not a problem in most Lebanon County water

Written by Daniel Walmer, Lebanon Daily News | Mar 21, 2016 2:30 PM

All water supplies that service at least 25 people are required to test periodically for lead.

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Although high levels of lead in water in Flint, Mich., and concerns about transparency in Flint and elsewhere have triggered nationwide concerns, Lebanon County's major public water suppliers do not have a lead problem, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

All water supplies, public or private, that service at least 25 people are required to test for lead on a periodic basis and report all results to DEP. A water system is deemed by EPA to have an "action-level exceedance"  -- triggering additional testing and public education requirements -- if 90th-percentile tests exceed 15 parts-per-billion (ppb) of lead.

Pennsylvania American Water, the City of Lebanon Authority, Cornwall Borough Municipal Authority, Fredericksburg Sewer & Water Authority, Heidelberg Township Municipal Authority, Mount Gretna Authority, Myerstown Water Authority, Newmanstown Water Authority, Quentin Water Co., and Richland Borough Water Co. all have had fewer than two tests above 15 ppb in the last three years, according to DEP data.

By contrast, 30 water samples from one home in Flint that was tested in a Virginia Tech study had lead levels ranging from 200 ppb to 13,200 ppb.

Three years of water quality reports from several major water suppliers in Lebanon County also appeared to accurately portray the results of lead testing in their systems.

Warnings

The good news of Lebanon County's water comes with some caveats, experts warned. First, 15 parts-per-billion is a regulatory standard, not a health standard. Lead has no health benefits, so the ideal amount is none at all, said Amy Galford, a Penn State Extension water resources educator. Lead in paint is a larger issue in this region, but any lead obtained through the water supply could add to the problem.

Most tests in most of Lebanon County's major water systems recorded levels far beneath the 15 ppb standard and many were 0 ppb, according to DEP data.

The second cause for concern is that a home's water could still contain lead even if the public water system from which it gets its water does not.

"The main sources of lead are within private plumbing," Galford said.

The portion of a water service line on private property is considered to be property owner's responsibility, and is particularly likely to contain lead elements on older homes, experts said. Even newer homes often have plumbing fittings, elbow joints and solder joints that contain lead, said Steve Fulton, an environmental engineer with ARM Group in Hershey who specializes in water supplies and systems.

Unknown lead lines

Lead contamination can occur anywhere from the groundwater source itself to the spigot from which the water is poured, Fulton said.

Service lines are part of the path water travels from the source to the spigot. However, representatives for several major water suppliers said they don't know where all lead service lines are located because it would be cost-prohibitive to dig up every line.

"It is not something that we inventory," said Jon Beers, executive director of the City of Lebanon Authority. "We don't know how many there are. As we run across them, we replace them."

However, there are several reasons to believe lead service lines aren't causing a lead problem in Lebanon's tap water, Beers said: the city has a clean water source from the mountains in Schuylkill County, its water is treated to reduce its aggressiveness, and tests results have not uncovered a lead problem.

That explanation is plausible because lead will only enter and contaminate water if two factors occur together -- lead fixtures or piping in the system, and aggressive, acidic water that corrodes the piping, Fulton said. In fact, the most economical method for eliminating lead from water is often to add alkalinity or corrosion inhibitors to the water to prevent corrosion, rather than replacing the piping, he said.

Myerstown tries to be proactive in replacing its lead service lines, but also treats its water to reduce the aggressiveness of its water and prevent corrosion, said Chris Strause, operations manager of the Myerstown Water Authority.

Both Myerstown and Cornwall officials said they think the authority-owned portions of most lead service lines have been replaced, although there are some older portions of Cornwall that are still likely to contain lead service lines, according to Cornwall Borough Municipal Authority Executive Director Barbara Henry. Pennsylvania American Water placed a "high priority" on identifying and replacing lead service lines in the 1990s and does not have knowledge of any remaining lead service lines in Lebanon or Dauphin counties, spokesman Terry Maenza said.

"Today, it's possible that we could encounter a lead service line that was not recorded, and if so, we remove and replace it immediately," Maenza said in an e-mail.

Within the home, blueish-green stains or small leaks in piping can be signs of corrosive, aggressive water, Galford said. Lead pipes are typically soft and dull gray in color, Beers said, and he encouraged anyone in Lebanon who notices lead pipes in their home to contact the authority.

Home testing

If you discover you do have a lead problem in your water, one solution is to switch to plastic plumbing and better faucets, Galford said. It is also possible to purchase limestone chips and other water treatment devices that can decrease the acidity of your water and the associated pipe corrosion.

Purchasing bottled water or using water purifiers can also be a temporary solution, Galford said. Be careful, though: not all water purifiers remove lead. Information about the lead-removal effectiveness of water purification devices can be found at the National Sanitation Foundation's website.

Most major water suppliers in Lebanon County are on a reduced three-year testing cycle that will occur again in 2016. Henry said anyone interested in letting the Cornwall Borough Municipal Authority use their location for its triennial test should let them know.

Tips for testing your home for lead:

  • Be tap-specific. Since faucets and plumbing fixtures can contain lead, tests results can differ from faucet to faucet, experts said. Either conduct tests at multiple taps or choose to test the tap you most commonly use for drinking water.
  • Do not run water for 6 to 24 hours before testing. Lead can accumulate in sitting water, so running water tends to flush out much of the lead, said David Brubacker, lab director for Pure-Test Water Laboratory near Myerstown. Water that has been running less than 6 hours before the test can create deceptively low test results, while water that has been sitting for more than 24 hours can cause misleadingly high readings.
  • Warm water may lead to higher test results than cold water, said Brubacker. That's because heat causes more frenzied chemical activity, making it easier for lead to enter the water from the piping.
  • Seek professional help. While lead-testing kits can be found at department stores, they often don't provide the precise procedures and quality controls necessary to get an accurate reading, several experts said. Penn State Extension educator Amy Galford said most lead tests run from $15 to $100, and Brubacker said Pure-Test said will analyze a lead test for $26. People seeking to have their water tested by Pure-Test can use a specially treated container from Pure-Water or their own uncontaminated container, like an unused water bottle opened and emptied of its current contents. The 100-200 mL samples can then be dropped off at Pure-Water at 738 E. Lincoln Ave. in Myerstown or at any Martin Appliance store, Brubacker said.

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between Lebanon Daily News and WITF. 

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