In the richest country in the history of the world, it is absurd that this many people do not have such a necessity delivered safely.
USA TODAY Network journalists spent 2016 reviewing millions of records from the Environmental Protection Agency and all 50 states, visiting small communities across the country and interviewing more than 120 people stuck using untested or lead-tainted tap water.
The investigation found:
About 100,000 people get their drinking water from utilities that discovered high lead but failed to treat the water to remove it. Dozens of utilities took more than a year to formulate a treatment plan and even longer to begin treatment.
Some 4 million Americans get water from small operators who skipped required tests or did not conduct the tests properly, violating a cornerstone of federal safe drinking water laws. The testing is required because, without it, utilities, regulators and people drinking the water can’t know if it’s safe. In more than 2,000 communities, lead tests were skipped more than once. Hundreds repeatedly failed to properly test for five or more years.
About 850 small water utilities with a documented history of lead contamination places where state and federal regulators are supposed to pay extra attention have failed to properly test for lead at least once since 2010.
This two-tiered system exists in both law and practice. State and federal water-safety officials told USA TODAY Network reporters that regulators are more lenient with small water systems because they lack resources, deeming some lost causes when they don’t have the money, expertise or motivation to fix problems. The nation’s Safe Drinking Water Act allows less-trained, often amateur, people to operate tiny water systems even though the risks for people drinking the water are the same.
Individually, the communities served by small utilities seem tiny. But together, the number of people getting lead-contaminated drinking water, or water not properly tested for lead, since 2010 is about 5 million.
Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards, one of the nation’s top experts on lead in drinking water who helped identify the crisis in Flint, Mich., laments that people in America’s forgotten places rural outposts, post-industrial communities and poor towns are most at risk from the dangers of lead exposure, such as irreversible brain damage, lowered IQ, behavioral problems and language delays.
Edwards said the effects of lead poisoning could make it even more difficult for families in these communities to climb out of poverty. “I’m worried about their kids,” he said. “The risk of permanent harm here is horrifying. These are America’s children.”
A cornerstone of those 25-year-old lead regulations is testing. But the USA TODAY Network found that 9,000 small water systems together serving almost 4 million people failed to test properly for lead in the past six years, meaning the toxin could be there without anyone knowing. More than a quarter of those systems had repeat lead-testing violations.
Money is a factor in skipping lead tests, which can cost around $50 per tap. Utilities must test from five to 20 locations, depending on how many customers they serve. A USA TODAY Network analysis found it would cost about $1.2 million to check the water served by every small utility that failed to test twice since 2010. Lead testing for every small water utility that missed even one test would cost around $5 million.