Revealed: At Least 21 Cities Use Same Water Testing 'Cheats' as Flint, Endangering Millions

A Guardian investigation has found that Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston all had similar testing regimes as Flint.

President Obama sips water from Flint, Mi. after a roundtable discussion on the city's water crisis.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Pete Souza

While authorities in Flint, Michigan charged three officials with a myriad of crimes for failing to properly test the city’s water supply, a major Guardian investigation released Thursday revealed at least 21 U.S cities used similar water testing methods as those that prompted a criminal probe into one of the worst public health crises in recent history.

According to the Guardian, cities including Chicago, Boston, Philidelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee all use water testing practices that could underestimate the levels of lead present in drinking water. In Philadelphia and Chicago, officials asked employees to test the water safety in their own homes. And in cities throughout Michigan and New Hampshire, water departments were advised to leave more time for testing in order to remove results showing levels that exceed federal limits. 

“If your water system samples early in their compliance period, then time remains for you to collect a second set of samples,” New Hampshire’s department of environmental services advised local water systems. “This may result in a 90th percentile below action levels.”

Several cities also implemented testing methods used in Flint, including pre-flushing taps prior to the testing period, and removing small metal faucet filters (“aerators”) which collect lead particles and increase the chances of lead detection during water tests. The Environmental Protection Agency warned against removing aerators as early as 2006, after officials discovered the lead poisoning in Durham, North Carolina was caused in part because the water department tested faucets without the filters.

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech scientist who first discovered the levels of lead in Flint, called the revelations in the Guardian article an “outrage.”

“They make lead in water low when collecting samples for EPA compliance, even as it poisons kids who drink the water,” Edwards said. “Clearly, the cheating and lax enforcement are needlessly harming children all over the United States.

“If they cannot be trusted to protect little kids from lead in drinking water, what on Earth can they be trusted with?” he asked. “Who amongst us is safe?”

Though methods like pre-flushing and removing aerators aren’t explicitly prohibited by the EPA, the agency advised cities to avoid screwing results by implementing these policies. Still the EPA has failed to regulate sample collection and ensure that cities are reporting accurate results about the water compositing.

“What on earth can you do when the environmental policemen at EPA have condoned open cheating on the water lead rule for more than a decade now?” Edwards asked.

Mike Glasgow, Stephen Busch, and Michael Prysb were all charged with crimes for misleading investigators about the city’s water supply; officials claim they manipulated results by directing sample collectors to pre-flush theirs taps. They also tampered with three reports on Flint’s lead levels. As the Guardian notes:

“Thousands of Flint’s children are expected to suffer developmental problems as a result of the lead contamination. Hundreds of thousands of bottles of water have been distributed to the city by the national guard, deployed in January. Barack Obama called Flint’s lead contamination a “man-made disaster” and a symptom of urban neglect suffered by poor, largely black communities across the US.”

In a statement, the EPA said it’s working on revising its rules in terms of sample collection and lead and copper testing.

“During our review, EPA has been evaluating critical issues related to increasing public health protections under the rule while maintaining an approach that can be feasibly implemented by the states and drinking water utilities,” the statement said.

The agency also insisted it told states to avoid methods that cheat the lead levels to below federal standards. “As we develop the proposed revisions to the rule, we are also focusing on enhanced oversight of the states, including implementation of the existing rule,” the statement said. “In EPA’s recent letter to the states, we make clear that approaches are not to include aerator removal or allow pre-stagnation flushing prior to collection of samples by residents.”

Still, several states told the Guardian the EPA has failed to issue guidance on testing protocols, some even claiming they never received a memo about water testing methods.

One thing is clear, the water crisis isn’t contained to Flint: cities all across the United States are shirking their responsibility to citizens. The price tag to replace America’s aging infrastructure may be high, but the cost to our public health if we fail to make the necessary changes will be astronomical.

Elizabeth Preza is a staff writer for Raw Story. Follow her on Twitter @lizacisms.

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