Whatcom County water meets lead standards, but risks still exist

A sink in Artzen Hall 415C on the Western Washington University campus sits unused and covered with a book due to a sign warning of high lead levels on Friday, April 8.
A sink in Artzen Hall 415C on the Western Washington University campus sits unused and covered with a book due to a sign warning of high lead levels on Friday, April 8. eabell@bhamherald.com

After high lead levels in drinking water created a crisis in Flint, Michigan, many communities around the country turned their attention to their own water quality.

An Associated Press analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data found that nearly 1,400 water systems serving 3.6 million Americans have exceeded the federal lead standard at least once since 2013.

Whatcom County could count itself among the lucky ones — not a single one of the 125 Whatcom water districts analyzed has reported lead tests above the allowable level in the last three years.

That means that in at least 90 percent of tests, the lead levels in that district were below 15 parts per billion. Anything with more than that would have to be addressed to meet federal guidelines.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any risks for high lead levels in Whatcom County.

For example, Bellingham has not had more than 10 percent of its samples exceed the federal limit since 1992, the first year tests were conducted here.

But Western Washington University, which uses Bellingham water, voluntarily tested sinks and drinking fountains in older buildings on campus in 2008 and 2009 and found lead levels above the federal standard in dozens of fixtures.

Lead on campus

In September 2008, Sue Sullivan, now director of the school’s Environmental Health and Safety office, was tasked with figuring out why people were complaining of an odd odor or taste in a drinking fountain in Arntzen Hall.

After two different tests showed lead levels between 26 and 29 parts per billion, officials decided to remove the fountain.

Workers found a cork element inside the fountain was deteriorating that could have caused the smell, Sullivan said, but the source of lead contamination wasn’t clear.

“That sparked the larger survey done on campus,” Sullivan said.

Unlike in Flint, Bellingham’s water is not distributed through lead pipes, but there are still places where lead can make its way into the water, said Eric Johnston, assistant director of city Public Works.

The flexible solder that joins some galvanized pipes to the city’s water mains may contain or be made from lead in some places, he said. Fixtures, such as sink faucets, old drinking fountains, and old pipe systems in aging buildings all could be sources of lead if installed or produced prior to the federal standards taking effect in the late ’80s and mid-’90s.

Sullivan took numerous samples in older buildings and locations using EPA standards. Water sources were flushed for 30 seconds the night before, and then signs were posted indicating that sink or fountain was being tested and should not be used, so that the next morning, the very first water out of the pipe could be collected for testing.

“You’re developing a scenario where someone comes in in the morning and is taking water from that source after it’s been sitting for a while,” Sullivan said. “That’s what’s called a standing sample.”

Locations that showed high results were tested again using a “flush test,” in which the water was run for 30 seconds before the sample was collected.

Warning signs posted

Laminated warning signs were posted at locations where lead was found near or above the federal level, and the university replaced fixtures that still had high levels after the second test.

In 2013, follow-up tests were conducted on the sinks and fountains that had been replaced.

While some fixtures that were replaced due to lead contamination tested as low as 2.2 parts per billion in a follow-up in 2013, others tested as high as 210, 350 or 650 ppb.

Of the 47 sites that were re-tested, 59.5 percent still exceeded the federal lead levels.

While some locations tested as low as 2.2 parts per billion, others tested as high as 210, 350 or 650 ppb.

“Keep in mind when you see certain higher levels in certain buildings, it might be indicative of some behaviors changed prior to the replacement of fixtures,” Sullivan said. “I don’t want to scare people, especially in Old Main, where our administration is, as to why their levels are higher. ... The interesting thing with Old Main is that when those laminated signs started going up, many just stopped using the water.”

With less water flushing a system, higher contaminant levels could be found.

Permanent signs were posted above those contaminated fixtures, which include kitchen sinks, drinking fountains, shop and lab sinks, warning people to get drinking water from other sources.

In some cases, people stopped using those signed sources altogether.

A sink in Arntzen Hall that tested at 230 parts per billion in 2013 was found with a book placed over it when viewed Friday, April 8. People nearby said as far as they knew, the book had been there a long time, due to the sign. In another case, a water fountain that tested at 19 ppb had a plastic bag covering it.

“I feel like drinking water in general is really good in the city and the county, but it’s easy to say and easy to forget about until something like Flint happens,” Sullivan said.

Although the EPA only requires testing at the city or water district level, the university has asked whether institutionally it should do another survey, Sullivan said.

“It’s a good conversation to have, and it’s just beginning,” Sullivan said.

Before making more changes based on the lead tests from 2013, Sullivan said she would want a consultant to help decipher some of that information.

The results of the university’s tests, and more information about the Environmental Health and Safety office, can be found online at wwu.edu/ehs/lead_in_drinking_water/results_menu.shtml.

Bellingham water better than required

The city provides water to about 100,000 people.

Sourced from Lake Whatcom and treated at a plant near Whatcom Falls Park, Bellingham’s water is well below the federal trigger point for lead and copper, Johnston said.

After those metal standards went into place, Bellingham’s first tests in 1992 showed that 22.7 percent of 66 samples taken had more lead than allowed. Those tests are taken at homes to show the actual water people would be drinking, not as the water was when it left the treatment plant.

“In 1992, most agencies said, ‘Where are you at?’ and developed corrosion controls,” Johnston said. “Do whatever you need to, to prevent lead and copper from coming out into the system.”

In addition to replacing lead components as they are found or scheduled for replacement, the city changed the way its water is treated.

Bellingham opted to make its water less acidic or corrosive by increasing the pH to about 7.8 (allowing it to go as high as 8.2) by adding soda ash (sodium carbonate) to the water after it is treated with chlorine.

15 parts per billion, federal action level for lead contamination

4 parts per billion, lead level for Bellingham’s drinking water in most 2014 tests

The city was already adding soda ash before the tests were required, so it simply increased the amount it was adding, Johnston said.

The most recent tests, conducted in 2014, show none of the city’s sites tested above the action level of 15 parts per billion, and 90 percent of the samples were at or below 4 ppb.

In the annual water quality report for 2015, which just went out to city water customers, Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said reports about the failures in Flint to provide safe water to its citizens were shocking and had “shined a light on how important it is to insist on safe water treatment and delivery systems.”

“Fortunately Bellingham doesn’t have the lead water pipes that Flint, Michigan, has, so our focus to improve our water distribution system includes aggressive replacement of aging water lines, leak detection, and cleaning lines,” Linville’s report states. “We are also out every day sampling water in the distribution system to assure that your drinking water remains pure and safe from lake to tap.”

What if lead levels are high

When a lead test collected by a homeowner as part of the city’s EPA-required samples comes back higher than the limit, the city can pass along a few recommendations, Johnston said.

Lead can cause health problems if consumed but cannot be absorbed through the skin, so washing your hands or bathing in water that exceeds the federal action level is considered OK for most people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To reduce exposure, the EPA recommends flushing pipes before drinking water from them.

Boiling water will not get rid of lead contamination.

“Anytime the water in a particular faucet has not been used for six hours or longer, ‘flush’ your cold-water pipes by running the water until it becomes as cold as it will get,” states an EPA site on reducing lead in drinking water. “This could take as little as five to thirty seconds if there has been recent heavy water use such as showering or toilet flushing. Otherwise, it could take two minutes or longer.”

Also, the site says to use only cold water for drinking, cooking and making baby formula, as hot water is likely to contain higher levels of lead.

Boiling water will not get rid of lead.

“If concerned, you could replace all lead fixtures, but that gets expensive,” Johnston said. “There are filters in the market for lead removal that can bind lead up before it makes it into your water pitcher.”

Bellingham water customers who are concerned or have questions about lead can contact Public Works at 360-778-7900 to find out more information and get contact information for some labs that could perform tests, Johnston said.

People who live in other areas should contact their water district or the Whatcom County Health Department for more information.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil