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Why Flint’s Water Crisis Couldn’t Happen in Utah

Interview with Ken Bousfield

Lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water has gotten national attention in recent weeks, raising concerns about whether this could happen in Utah. Ken Bousfield, director of the Division of Drinking Water (DDW), explains why this is unlikely.

Utah Water Systems

How did Flint’s drinking water become contaminated with lead?

In April 2014, Flint City’s managers switched their drinking water source from purchased water from Detroit to water from the Flint River. The decision to switch was a cost-saving measure. Unfortunately, the new source water was corrosive and caused lead in the piping between city water pipelines and homes to dissolve into the water entering the homes.  According to press reports, Flint residents observed and reported the change in water quality (e.g., brown or red water) to the city.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set an action level (AL) standard of 15 parts per billion (ppb) for lead. The AL is based on the 90th percentile level of tap water samples. Exceedance of the AL triggers further actions and requirements, such as monitoring, corrosion control treatment, source water monitoring/treatment, public notification and education, as well as lead service-line replacement.

What are the risks to the public from lead in the drinking water?

 Elevated levels of lead can cause serious health problems, especially for pregnant women and young children. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), most studies show that exposure to lead-contaminated water alone would not be likely to elevate blood lead levels in most adults.

Do Utah water systems monitor and sample for lead?

There are currently 544 water systems in the state of Utah that sample for lead. We currently have a 99.82 percent compliance rate with the lead AL. A system that has a confirmed AL exceedance is required to monitor more frequently, distribute public education documents and, within six months, submit a treatment recommendation to the division.

What does Utah have in place to prevent the Flint “Lead Poison” scenario from happening here?

There a number of measures in place that protect the public from lead-contaminated drinking water:

  • The majority of Utah water sources provide hard water to their customers, which is not corrosive.
  • DDW’s plan review program requires state review and approval on design, treatment, and source water quality data before allowing a new water source, which may require installation of corrosion control process.
  • Public Water Systems (PWSs) are required to conduct routine monitoring of the water source and distribution system and to report to the DDW. As a result, Utah’s water utilities and DDW should know if the water is corrosive.
  • DDW examines drinking water sample data and follows up on drinking-water AL exceedance and maximum contaminant level (MCL).
  • Water utilities are required to communicate lead risks when there is an exceedance of the lead AL and publish the results annually in the Consumer Confidence Report.
  • As of 2012, water systems are required to notify the residence sites where a sample was drawn of the results. The annual Consumer Confidence Report outlines the lead levels in the system and provides specific language about the health effects of lead.
  • In 1986, the Safe Drinking Water Act required pipes, plumbing fitting or fixtures, solders, or fluxes in the installation or repair of any public water system or plumbing in facility providing water for human consumption to be lead-free. Many of Utah’s water systems have removed or never installed lead pipes or lead-bearing materials in water distribution systems, including “service lines” that supply water from the water main to the meter and then the home.

Can you give some examples of how Utah’s water utilities prevent lead contamination?

Salt Lake City Public Utilities (SLCDPU) is very proactive in its water quality monitoring, sampling for lead and copper every three years and monitoring its water sources constantly. Langelier Index (LI) measurements on all finished water sources indicate that their water is noncorrosive, and 2015 testing showed that the 90th Percentile for first-draw lead samples is less than the lead AL of 15ppb. The city’s major water sources originate from snow melt, and there is little variation in its chemistry. The hard water tends to coat the internal surfaces of the plumbing to provide a protective layer to shield against corrosion.

Park City Municipal Corporation has a very aggressive distribution monitoring and main-flushing program that goes well beyond regulatory requirements. Park City currently participates in a project with the AWWA Water Research Foundation, the internationally recognized leader in water research, pilot testing the best and most cost-effective water main cleaning methods, emphasizing their commitment to both high-quality source and distribution system water.

 How can consumers protect themselves?

 You can very easily reduce the risk of lead in drinking water by flushing home plumbing before consuming water. This can be done by turning on the cold water supply and waiting until the water goes noticeability cold. Then wait 30 seconds, with the water flowing, to ensure that water in your service line (the piping between the City’s water main and your home) is also flushed. Then fill your glass with cold water. That water goes cold because it is water that moments earlier was in the pipeline in the street rather than in pipes warmed by the temperature in your home.

If you are still concerned about lead in your drinking water, you can arrange for a water test from an accredited laboratory.

Want to know more? We’ve provided an alphabetized list of Lead Action Levels for water systems in the state on our webpage, along with a list of frequently asked questions about lead in drinking water.

I have worked with the Utah Division of Drinking and its predecessor agencies for nearly 40 years and have been Division Director for more than ten years. I have a bachelor’s degree in Engineering Sciences from Brigham Young University and am a registered Professional Engineer in Utah. I grew up in Los Angeles City and now live in Sandy City. My wife Gail and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary last September. We have four children and eight grandchildren.

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