FOX10 News investigation finds incidents of lead in local water

FOX10 News Investigates: Lead testing in school drinking water
FOX10 News Investigates: Lead testing in school drinking water(FOX10 News)
Updated: Nov. 23, 2016 at 9:33 PM CST
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Eight water systems across Mobile and Baldwin counties have had testing results above the legal limit for lead content in the last three years, according to an analysis of government records by FOX10 News Investigates. Those water systems are Dauphin Island Water and Sewer, Foley Utilities Board, Grand Bay Water Works, Mobile Area Water and Sewer System (MAWSS), Prichard Water Board, Robertsdale Water, St. Elmo-Irvington Water Authority, and Bayou La Batre Utilities. 

Public water systems are required by law to test the highest-risk homes in its system for lead, in order to accurately represent the possible lead levels for all of the homeowners in the system with older, lead plumbing. Homes most at-risk for lead contamination are those built in the 1980s or before, which could have lead plumbing components that can leach lead into water. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about 164,000 homes in Mobile and Baldwin counties built before 1989. However, FOX10 News found many water systems in Mobile and Baldwin counties don’t know specifically where homes with lead plumbing are located, which is a common challenge for water systems nationwide, usually due to poor building records.

Even the largest system on the Alabama Gulf Coast, MAWSS, struggles with that issue. “It’s difficult to tell, because we don’t have exact records,” explained Hector Castro, Engineering Manager for MAWSS. 

Castro said MAWSS crews come across lead gooseneck pipes in the public service lines as they conduct maintenance on system plumbing. He says in a year’s work, crews typically find 10 out of every 50 gooseneck dug up is made with lead. “We did check with the Mobile building official, they didn’t keep records, so there aren’t any records as far as potential lead goosenecks,” explained Castro. Since 2012, MAWSS has had four different homes test above legal lead limit, according to its documents.

Regardless, MAWSS affirms it is treating its water with an anti-corrosive to help curb the potential risk for lead to leach into water as it moves through old pipes. “It’s called polyorthophosphate, it’s perfectly safe to drink, we put it in at a very small quantity, but what polyorthophosphate does, is it coats the inside of the pipes, all of the pipes, and it doesn’t matter what type of pipe it’s running through, it coats it, and the coating acts as a barrier, between the water and any lead that might be in the solder joins or in the goosenecks,” Castro said. 

FOX10 News Investigates conducts water testing for lead 

“We don’t want anything that’s going to harm anybody, me, my kids, or anybody else,” said Bayou La Batre resident, Frienzella Johnson. A FOX10 News investigation found Johnson’s home had more than twice the legal limit of lead in her drinking water. FOX10 News hired Analytical Chemical Testing Laboratory Inc. (ACT Lab), of Mobile, to test samples taken from various areas across Mobile and Baldwin Counties for lead content. We sampled areas in Citronelle, Robertsdale, and Daphne, that according to public documents, may still have water lines with lead components.

We also sampled four older city parks in Mobile - Texas Street Park, Lavretta Park, Langan Park, and Medal of Honor Park, as well as areas where public water systems have found high lead levels in the past, in Dauphin Island, Foley, Mobile, and Bayou La Batre. All samples came back safe, except one from Bayou La Batre: Johnson’s home. The legal limit for lead content is 15 parts per billion (ppb), but the lead in Johnson’s water was measured at 33 ppb. “I don’t want anything that could harm my babies,” Johnson said. “I need to find out, what’s going on and why is it like it is?”

Johnson lives in a home built in 1983. She said she’s had issues with her Bayou La Batre water in the past.

“Occasionally the water is rusty, we have a problem with the water rusting, and we’ll call, and they’ll send somebody out and flush the lines. That’s it, they don’t say where it comes from, what causes it, nothing like that,” she said.

Johnson lives with her two 6-year-old twin granddaughters. She said she’s concerned for their health after seeing the FOX10 News testing result.

According to public lead testing records, Bayou La Batre Utilities has had other homes with dangerous lead levels. In 2013, one home tested six times above the legal lead limit, at 108 ppb. FOX10 News asked Michael McClantoc, the Director of Bayou La Batre Utilities, for an interview multiple times, but never got a response.

Johnson is frustrated about the quality of her water, and said she will be also be trying to get answers from the utility company.

“I will be going to find out, why is my water like this?” she said. Dr. Marc Edwards, a drinking water quality specialist at Virginia Tech University, reviewed our findings. “Even though your one out of 15, was over the action level, that’s not really reassuring, because for the law to work, you have to have the plumbing records, you have to know which houses have the worst lead, and if you’re not sampling there, getting one out of 15 is bad, that can be really horrible news,” explained Dr. Edwards. 

What is the danger of high lead levels in water? 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, there is no safe level of lead exposure. Lead contamination in water is especially harmful to children.

Dr. Curtis Turner, a pediatrician with the University of South Alabama said exposure to lead over the 15 ppb legal limit can be dangerous, especially over prolonged periods of time.

“It can slow the brain development, by causing some toxicities, where the brain just doesn’t function quite as rapidly as it would, it’s a little bit of dulling,” explained Dr. Turner. Dr. Turner said lead can also adversely affect kidneys and bone marrow, and the effects are irreversible.

Johnson said she not only worries for herself and her children, but for her neighbors, who also have older homes that could face the same risk FOX10 News uncovered on her property. “I will be making a visit to them… as soon as possible. Finding out what I can do, and what they’re going to do,” she said. 

How you can protect yourself from lead in drinking water 

If you live in a home built in the 1980s or before, you could be at risk for lead contamination in your drinking water. Further, if your water often appears “rusty,” as Johnson said she sees in her water, the EPA says you could be dealing with lead contamination.

You can do your own, at-home water testing by buying a water quality testing kit at most hardware stores and supermarkets for around $20 to $30. You can also hire a laboratory to test your home’s water supply, or you can check with your local water system or the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) about further testing regarding your water concerns. You can also look for lead plumbing under your home.

What to do

If you believe you have elevated lead levels, the EPA recommends these measures to reduce the amount of lead to which you could be exposed:

• Run your water before cooking and drinking – Do this especially when the faucet has not been used for six hours or longer. That’s when lead is likely to corrode into the still water. Experts recommend running the water for five minutes, or at least until cold, before using the water for drinking or cooking.

• Only use cold water for drinking or cooking – Hot water is more likely to contain higher levels of lead. Experts say boiling pasta or vegetables in lead contaminated water can cook the lead into the food. Also, be careful not to use hot water for your child’s formula.

• Purchase a water filter – Before you buy, make sure it is certified to filter “total lead.” You can check to see if a filter is certified by clicking here:

• Beware of construction happening in your neighborhood – Maintenance work going on near your home can loosen lead particles from old pipes, making lead easier to leach into water.

• Regularly change faucet screens – Sediment and metals can build up on the screen. Experts recommend cleaning the tip of the faucet regularly, as well.

• Use a different water source – Consider switching to bottled water for cooking or drinking. According to the EPA, it is safe to shower in lead contaminated water, as lead cannot be absorbed through the skin.

• Replace your lead plumbing – This option may be pricy, but it could be worth your while, if you’re certain your home contains lead plumbing components.