Steve Johnson / CC-BY-2.0

A Guardian investigation prompted by the toxic water crisis in Flint, Mich., found that administrations in at least 33 U.S. cities, including Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit, cut corners while testing drinking water for dangerous levels of lead.

Among the discoveries were the findings that officials in Philadelphia and Chicago asked employees to test water safety in their own homes, while Michigan and New Hampshire advised water departments to give themselves extra time to complete tests so that if lead contamination exceeded federal limits, officials could rsample and remove results with high levels.

Other cities denied knowledge of the locations of lead pipes and failed to sample the required number of homes with lead piping or refused to release maps of lead pipes, claiming it would risk the city’s security.

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech scientist who first uncovered the crisis in Flint, described water testing in some of United States’ largest cities is 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? Who amongst us is safe?”

The Guardian reports:

For 25 years, the Environmental Protection Agency has required water utilities to test a small pool of households for lead contamination at least every three years. Typically, city water departments ask residents to collect these water samples. But the way residents are instructed to sample their water, as well as which households are chosen for testing, can profoundly impact how much lead is detected.

Testing methods that can avoid detecting lead include asking testers to run faucets before the test period, known as “pre-flushing”; to remove faucet filters called “aerators”; and to slowly fill sample bottles. The EPA reiterated in February that these lead-reducing methods go against its guidelines, and the Flint charges show they may now be criminal acts.

The arrest warrant for Glasgow, Busch and Prysby states that the men “did properly manipulate the collection of water samples by directing residents to ‘pre-flush’ their taps by running the water for five minutes the night before drawing a water sample and/or did fail to collect required sampled included in the tier 1 category of service lines.”

The tactic of pre-flushing, which helps clear lead from home plumbing prior to a test, is rampant across many large cities. In their most recent test cycles, Philadelphia; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Buffalo, New York, tested water for lead in this way.

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Apparently as a consequence of the investigation, water departments that used the bad practices told The Guardian that they will change their practices.

Most of the water departments involved said they used the testing methods because state governments told them to, federal guidance was not clear, or they had not received any word that practices may underestimate lead content.

The investigation into lead testing methods comes after the lead contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, where indictments against three government officials referenced water testing methods as part of an alleged coverup.

The Guardian requested records from more than 80 of the most populous cities east of the Mississippi river, which have some of the oldest homes in the country. Forty-three cities provided documents to the Guardian, and 33 were found to have used methods the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advised against earlier this year.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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