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Federal Revisions To Water Testing Rules Could Affect Results

Water faucet
Flickr: Luis

The Flint, Michigan water crisis shined a light on the quality of drinking water. It caused people to pause and wonder whether their own water is safe. WOSU examines how Columbus and Ohio test their water supplies, and how new guidelines could affect the results.

Every three years, usually in June, the city of Columbus sends water quality testing kits to 50 homes.

“The homeowner collects the samples for us, usually puts them out on the doorstep, and we come by and pick them up," Rod Dunn said. 

Dunn manages Columbus’ water quality assurance lab.

Dunn said the testing ensures the city’s corrosion control program is working - that lead and copper are not leaching into drinking water.

“We go out and we find sites that have a lead service line or that have 50-50 lead-tin solder. And those are our samples," he said. 

For the past three testing cycles, Columbus’ water has been well within federal safety limits for lead and copper, on the low end, actually.

But upcoming testing could render different results after recent federal revisions to testing protocols.

Until this summer, the city of Columbus – and many other municipalities around the country – used what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls a “pre-stagnation flushing step.” Residents were told to run their faucet a couple of minutes the night before testing, then not use any water for at least six hours – letting it sit in the pipes – before drawing the sample.

For Dunn, that made sense. He said it created a controlled sample of sorts.

“It sets a standard protocol … that way you can compare results from year to year. Without that standard time period that the water’s in there the results can vary," Dunn said. "You don’t know if that’s because of the corrosion control program going on or if it sat in the pipes one year longer than the other.”

Ohio EPA spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer said the U.S. EPA used to advise the pre-flushing. But that’s changed. In a February memo, the EPA said the practice could “potentially lower the lead levels” in test results by possibly removing lead-tainted water from the pipes the night before.

David Loveday is with the Water Quality Association, which advises water testing professionals. He said the Flint, Michigan water crisis highlighted drinking water quality and prompted the changes by the EPA.

“That’s a good thing…across the country now municipalities and homeowners are reevaluating and retesting all the water," he said. 

Loveday said the previous protocols were good. But he said the new ones should make testing more accurate.

Ohio is leading the nation on lead water notification. Earlier this month, Governor John Kasich signed a bill into law requiring the public to be told within two days if lead is found in drinking water. Federal law requires 30 days.

Greismer said that adds more transparency to testing.

“The Centers for Disease Control has said that there is not a known safe level of lead. So we want people to know if lead is found in the drinking water as soon as possible," Greismer said. 

In addition to removing pre-flushing from testing protocols, the U.S. EPA recommends the use of wide-mouth sample bottles so residents could fill them just like they’d fill a glass of water. The reasoning: a stronger flow could release more lead particulates in the samples.

Columbus has revised its protocols to reflect the new guidelines, but Rod Dunn of the city’s water lab doesn’t expect test results to change much.