IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — States have taken steps to address the risk of lead in drinking water after the crisis in Flint, Michigan, but more needs to be done to share key information with the public, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday.
In letters to state drinking water regulators, the agency called on all states to make individual lead sampling results available online in searchable databases. That practice, already established in states like Illinois, allows residents to see which homes and buildings have been tested by utilities and what levels of the toxin, which is most harmful for young children and pregnant women, was identified.
The EPA said a "substantial number" of states were already posting such information. But others, such as Iowa, have resisted, citing a lack of information technology resources and privacy concerns about posting addresses of testing sites.
Those obstacles can be overcome and the EPA will help by sharing with states lessons learned from the launches of existing databases, Deputy Assistant Administrator Joel Beauvais said in an interview.
"It's one of a number of transparency elements that we see as really important," he said.
While no amount of lead exposure is considered safe, the rule calls for water systems to keep levels below 15 parts per billion during periodic testing. If more than 10 percent of sampled high-risk homes are above that level, water agencies must inform customers about the problem and take steps such as adding chemicals to control corrosion.
Water systems routinely publish data showing they are overall in compliance with the rule — but omit information that shows specific addresses were at or above the limit.
"There might be a significant number of samples that are showing lead levels of concern and it's important for the public to know that," Beauvais said. He added that privacy concerns can be addressed by redacting personal information.
The EPA also called on the nation's water systems to complete their inventories of locations with lead service lines, a key indicator that homes are at risk for contamination. When water comes through the lines that connect many older homes to water mains, lead particles can leach and taint what comes out of the tap.
Those inventories, posted online in searchable databases by some utilities, allow homeowners to find out whether their homes have lead service lines so they can replace them or add filtration systems. Water systems were required in the 1990s to begin work on such inventories, but state regulators told the EPA that many were never finished or are outdated.
"There isn't robust or comprehensive information on this for many systems," Beauvais said.
Beauvais said those inventories are critical to ensure homes and buildings at the highest risk for lead are being tested as required. He said they also help utilities minimize service disruptions and know which areas should be the focus of replacement programs.
In February, EPA ordered states to take action to improve public confidence in the nation's water supply after the crisis in Flint, where residents were exposed to high lead levels when the city switched to a more corrosive water source that wasn't properly treated. All levels of government have been blamed for responding slowly; some children suffered lead poisoning.