News Feature | December 27, 2016

Investigations Reveal Breadth Of U.S. Lead Contamination

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,


Two new investigations highlight the breadth of lead contamination in U.S., indicating that Flint’s problems were hardly isolated incidents.

In a sweeping investigation into lead contamination in the U.S., titled “Beyond Flint,” USA Today identified “almost 2,000 additional water systems spanning all 50 states where testing has shown excessive levels of lead contamination over the past four years.”

Rural water system are dogged by some of the most difficult lead contamination in the country. Laura Ungar, the lead reporter on the USA Today investigation, told PBS Newshour: “We wanted to look at the problem beyond Flint and look to see just how big the scope was. And so, basically, we looked at where the problem was the worst, and we found that, in these small water systems, which are generally located in rural areas, small, remote communities.”

Meanwhile, a Reuters investigation of lead testing results across the country identified “nearly 3,000 areas with recently recorded lead poisoning rates at least double those in Flint during the peak of that city’s contamination crisis. And more than 1,100 of these communities had a rate of elevated blood tests at least four times higher. Reuters examined neighborhood-level blood testing results in its reports, noting that much of it had not been disclosed in the past.”

In Allegheny, PA, for instance, 35 percent of children who were tested had high lead levels, and “in some pockets of Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, where lead poisoning has spanned generations, the rate of elevated tests over the last decade was 40 to 50 percent,” Reuters reported.

The USA Today report cited “limited and inconsistent” testing requirements as one reason for lead contamination in drinking water.

“The testing required by the government can include samples from as few as five or 10 taps in a year, or even over multiple years. The system is designed only to give an indication of whether homes or buildings with lead pipes and plumbing may be at higher risk of lead leaching into water. Even the biggest water systems in cities are required to test just 50 to 100 taps,” the report said.

USA Today sought to identify who is at greatest risk of lead contamination in water. That, the report said, citing experts, includes “an estimated 7.3 million homes connected to their utility's water mains by individual lead service lines — the pipe carrying water from the main under the street onto your property and into your home.”

As reports seek to identify the extent of the lead problem beyond Flint, the city that became famous for its lead crisis is still facing deep challenges itself.

“Still, all these months later, residents do not trust the drinking water. Lead levels in Flint’s water have improved over the last year, officials say, as they have worked to solve the city’s problem. But residents are still being advised not to drink tap water unless they have a water filter. And many residents say they are uncomfortable drinking anything but bottled water anymore. Officials had told them that the water was safe when it was not, they say, so why should they believe it is safe now?” The New York Times reported, citing an activist working on the city water crisis.

Image credit: "Water Drop," Smitha Murthy © 2009, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: