AUSTIN (KXAN) — Lead in drinking water: it’s dangerous and it has been found in Travis County drinking water systems multiple times in the past several years, according to state records.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommend the public minimize contact with water containing more than 15 parts per billion of lead.
A KXAN analysis of Texas Commission on Environmental Quality data found more than 15 local water suppliers with individual test results that show lead levels exceeding 15 part per billion since 2005. Those utilities include Garfield Water Supply Corporation, St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Briarcreek Subdivision, Windermere Community, among others, according to TCEQ data. The results indicate single test locations that have shown high levels of lead, rather than a systematic and ongoing issue in the utilities.
The high lead tests do not indicate any individual water supplier has broken state or federal regulations. Most lead tests showed levels near zero and far below the recommended 15 ppb limit.
Lead can cause delays in mental and physical development in children, as well as decreased kidney function and high blood pressure in adults, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Lead found locally
Michael Richards, chief financial officer with St. Stephen’s, said the school had one instance of elevated lead in a tap it tested. TCEQ records show a water test at the school with 63 ppb of lead in September of 2014.
The issue could have been a sampling error, Richards said. “We do not feel our population, students, faculty, residential faculty, are in any danger whatsoever,” he added.
After the test, the school doubled its testing efforts and posted notice of the lead finding, as the law requires, Richards said. There have been no other instances of lead found in the school’s water.
KXAN has also reached out to the Garfield Water Supply Corporation, which had test results showing lead levels more than triple the CDC recommendation at two Garfield addresses in 2014.
Most of these water suppliers with high lead levels are relatively small providers. Austin Water Utility, the largest water supplier in Travis County, has no history of high lead levels or lead-related violations, according to TCEQ records.
Without proper treatment, lead in old pipes and fittings can leach into the water supply. Exposure can cause health problems, especially in children, according to experts and the CDC.
Charlie Maddox, Water Regulatory Manager with the Austin Water Utility, said his utility uses chemicals to manage its water quality and prevent lead from getting into the supply. “We lime soften our water in the treatment plant,” Maddox said. “Because of that lime softening process we leave our plants with water that is scale forming and noncorrosive.” Over time, Austin’s treated water forms a protective scale on the inside of pipes that stops corrosion from leaching out chemicals such as lead, Maddox said.
After KXAN’s original story aired, the general manager for the Lakeway Municipal Utility District, Earl Foster, highlighted what he believes is an error in TCEQ data for the one high lead test in that district. Foster emailed a document, which he says proves the lead levels in the test were in fact below the 15 ppb standard.
The document lists test results matching the date, location and other identifiers in TCEQ data. The number lead level is listed in that report at about 2 ppb. Foster wrote that the number in TCEQ’s lead data appears to match the number in his report for copper levels, not lead. KXAN sent the information to TCEQ and is currently waiting on a response and documentation of the original results sent to the commission.
Public health crisis
If a water supplier doesn’t properly treat water, it can lead to serious problems like those now hitting Flint, Mich., which is grappling with a public health crisis related to lead found in its drinking water. The problems in Flint occurred when the city switched the source of water entering its pipes. In 2014, Flint began receiving water from the Flint River rather than Detroit’s water supply. The corrosive river water leached lead from old pipes, and numerous children in Flint now have high levels of lead in their blood, according to local officials and media reports.
Map: Locations that have tested above 15 ppb in Central Texas
Most Texas water suppliers test for lead, and TCEQ publishes the results online. In the map below, you can see the numerous instances in which lead exceeded the CDC’s recommended level of 15 ppb. The instances noted on this map are taken from TCEQ testing data and do not indicate violations of state or federal regulations.
Source: TCEQ Data
Editor’s Note: In the original story, we listed Lakeway MUD as a site that had lead levels higher than 15 ppb. The general manager for the MUD says he believes it was a clerical error on TCEQ’s data entry. Thursday evening TCEQ said Lakeway MUD public water system is currently in compliance with the lead and copper rule.
This story updates a previous version, after KXAN News received further test results from the state.