The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies contaminants in drinking water and sets regulatory limits for certain contaminants as required by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). EPA has delegated primary enforcement responsibility (primacy) for Utah public water systems to the Division of Drinking Water. DDW works with public water systems to ensure they meet the federal drinking-water standards under the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWR). These legally enforceable standards and treatment techniques protect public health by limiting the levels of contaminants in drinking water.
Lead is a toxic metal that is sometimes used in plumbing materials or in water-service lines used to bring water from the main line to homes, schools, or other buildings. Lead is a significant health concern, particularly for children, whose developing bodies are more susceptible to its harmful effects. Adverse health impacts from lead include damage to the brain and kidneys, reduced IQ and attention span, learning disabilities, poor classroom performance, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, and impaired growth.
Lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s drinking-water system heightened awareness and concern among Utah residents about the possibility of lead in their own drinking water. Utah’s public water systems employ many measures to ensure the water is safe to drink. The Safe Drinking Water Act’s (SDWA’s) Lead and Copper Rule requires public water systems to control the corrosivity of their water. (Highly corrosive water was responsible for the high levels of lead in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water). Systems must collect samples at customer taps in homes that are more likely to have plumbing materials containing lead. If the lead concentrations exceed the 15 micrograms per liter (µg/L) action level in more than 10 percent of the taps sampled, the water system must take additional actions to control corrosion in the drinking water. SDWA also requires public water systems to prepare and distribute an annual water quality report called the Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) to its customers. The CCR contains information about any contaminants found in the water, including lead.
Most lead problems in homes and schools, however, do not originate with the finished drinking water provided by the water supplier, but from lead pipes, solder, and fixtures within the house or school. In Utah, most drinking water sources from reservoirs and groundwater are extremely low in lead content. However, lead increases in water when water flows through lead pipes or plumbing in buildings. Service lines — the pipes that connect homes, schools, or other buildings to the water main — can also have lead in them. There may also be lead pipes, pipes connected with lead solder, or brass faucets or fittings containing lead inside homes or schools. Lead levels are highest when the water has been sitting in lead pipes for several hours. Additionally, hot water can draw lead out of pipes, solder, or fixtures and release it into the water more quickly.
Currently, 555 water systems in the state of Utah sample for lead. In 2017, only two percent of water systems exceeded either the lead or copper action levels. DDW works with the water systems to provide notice to the consumers, conduct follow up testing, and identify treatment options. In most cases, high samples are due to improper sampling procedure and not indicative of widespread corrosion. Nevertheless, a public water system will still be required to increase its lead and copper monitoring to ensure the safety of the water quality and distribution system.
Success Story: Lead in Schools Initiative
In January 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a letter (1.4 MB) to all State Superintendents recommending that schools test their drinking water for lead. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Utah Department of Health (DOH) partnered with Utah schools to conduct voluntary sampling for lead in their drinking water. While sampling for lead is not currently required for schools serviced by a public water system, DEQ (1.2 MB) and DOH (46 KB) urged schools to sample the drinking water in each building to ensure the health and safety of schoolchildren and staff.
DEQ and DOH reached out to several school districts in spring 2017 and asked them to participate in a voluntary pilot study to sample for lead in the drinking water at their schools. While most of the pilot-study test results fell below the EPA action level of 15 micrograms per liter (µg/L), some of the samples exceeded that level. Schools with elevated levels have remediated the problem through fixture replacement, system flushing, and in-school water treatment followed by resampling to ensure that lead levels in the drinking water are now below the action level. Schools may need to establish a regular sampling schedule depending on the control measures they put into place to keep lead exposure low.
School-sampling data to date:
- Seventy-five percent of schools have participated and have collected a total of 1699 samples.
- Ninety-two percent of the schools that tested had a detectable level of lead.
- Two percent of the schools that tested were over the EPA Action Level of 15 µg/L. Three percent of the samples tested over the Action Levels. Approximately 13,000 schoolchildren were affected
- Forty percent of the schools that tested were between 1 µg/L and 15 µg/L.
DDW has compiled and summarized the results of ongoing sampling on its online drinking-water database WaterLink. The sampling report provides the school name, school district, county, sample results (above or below the action level of 15µ/L), actions being taken, detailed comments on all actions taken to bring the lead content below the action level, and the date of the last update. The search bar at the top right allows users to easily locate their school. Not all Utah schools have conducted lead sampling. The Division updates the database when sampling results from these schools become available.
Since the pilot study, DDW has created a partnership for lead-free schools, distributed a lead-in-schools flier during the 2018-2019 school-year, and produced a webinar for administrators and superintendents on lead in schools.
Local health departments have been essential partners for connecting the gap between DDW and school districts.
“Nathan Selin of the Central Health Department has been working with the school districts in the Central Health Department area. He and his staff have assisted school districts with limited manpower with sample collection, provided technical assistance, and insured samples are sent to the lab. Nathan has done a great job communicating with DDW and facilitating a relationship with the school districts.”
–Marie Owens, Director, Division of Drinking Water
Action Level for Lead
EPA is required by law to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no adverse health effects are likely to occur. These health-based levels are called maximum contaminant level goals (MCLGs). EPA set the MCLG for lead in drinking water at zero because the best available science has not been able to determine a safe level for lead in drinking water. However, the agency did set an action level of 15 micrograms per liter (µg/L) that triggers additional actions by public water systems if over 10 percent of the faucets sampled exceed this level. In 2015, EPA began work on developing a health-based household standard for lead in drinking water; these studies are still underway. Since the 15 µg/L action level is the only standard available under current law, states sampling for lead in their schools have been measuring their test results against this standard.
Harmful algal blooms (HABs) occur when normally occurring cyanobacteria in the water multiply quickly to form visible colonies or blooms. These blooms sometimes produce potent cyanotoxins that can pose serious health risks to humans and animals.
While cyanotoxins are considered unregulated contaminants (147 KB) under the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWR), HABs are still a possible source of contamination for surface waters in Utah. DDW recommends that public water systems using surface water assess their vulnerability to potential HABs, and those water systems found to be vulnerable prepare a Cyanotoxin Management Plan to respond to possible emergency situations, including HABs. DDW believes it is beneficial to the water system as well as the consumer to have defined procedures in place to prevent harmful levels of cyanotoxins from reaching finished drinking water.
To assist public water systems in the preparation of these plans, DDW developed a HAB Response Plan in 2017 that provides water systems with guidelines, important HABs information, and the references needed to develop a Cyanotoxin Management Plan. The plan includes a protocol for monitoring, sampling, and analysis of source, raw, and finished water, as necessary. The plan references Drinking Water Health Advisories from both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) for three cyanobacterial toxins (microcystins, cylindrospermopsin, anatoxin-a) and offers recommendations for public notification based on levels of cyanotoxins detected in the finished water.
The Division also assembled a comprehensive list of resources for public water systems, including water-treatment optimization for cyanotoxins, recommendations for public water systems to manage cyanotoxins in drinking water, methods for identifying blooms, and sample templates to use when issuing drinking-water health advisories.
Success Story: Coordination with Drinking Water Systems during Harmful Algal Blooms
Harmful algal blooms (HABs), more accurately known as harmful cyanobacteria blooms, don’t just impact recreational activities. Often, the same body of water that is popular for outdoor activities is also used as a drinking-water source. As a result, HABs that can release toxins in the water can impact drinking-water treatment. HAB events can be unpredictable and rapid, so monitoring, notification, and coordination are critical to protecting public health.
DDW has worked hard to develop a strong communication and coordination effort with the Division of Water Quality (DWQ) and the water systems that use these surface waters as drinking-water sources. When a HAB incident is reported, DDW looks at its list of drinking-water sources and immediately contacts water systems that could be impacted by the bloom.
Since most HAB incidents occur in isolated patches near the surface or shore, they are unlikely to affect a drinking-water plant that diverts water from deep in a reservoir or uses water diluted with other sources. However, it’s important to notify a water system as soon as possible so it can conduct monitoring and consider the possible impacts on the drinking-water treatment process.
DDW put its communication and coordination response plan into effect when Scofield Reservoir experienced a bloom in the summer of 2018. Scofield Reservoir, located near Price, Utah, is an important agriculture and drinking-water source. The reservoir has experienced blooms in the past, and as a result, DWQ has increased its monitoring efforts there.
When samples from a bloom on the reservoir showed high levels of cyanotoxins, DWQ notified DDW, which immediately contacted the two downstream water-treatment facilities. These quick actions allowed the drinking-water treatment plants to start monitoring for toxins and determine the best treatment options. The two treatment plants coordinated with each other and decided that one plant would shut down while the other plant treated the water.
Not only does this communication teamwork provide timely risk mitigation for possible cyanotoxins, but it also gives drinking water systems time to notify the public of possible issues and provide information to address public concerns.