Philadelphia water department faces class action lawsuit over water testing


City is under increasing pressure to change test methods that scientists said may underestimate the amount of lead found in water after a Guardian investigation

The Philadelphia water department, accused by some experts of having water testing worse than Flint, is facing a class action lawsuit and a lead-testing campaign mounted by citizens concerned about water quality.

On Thursday, hours after the Guardian published an investigation into the water-testing practices of 33 cities east of the Mississippi river, the Hagens Berman law firm announced a class action lawsuit against Philadelphia, based in part on the citys outdated test practices.

Studies have shown that the kind of construction the city is carrying out creates the perfect storm for lead pipe corrosion, said Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman, in a statement. Yet the city has decided to conceal this growing health hazard from its own citizens To add insult to injury, the city of Philadelphia has actively concealed this issue by rigging its lead-testing procedures.

The Guardians investigation, based on documents obtained using open records requests, showed how 33 cities across 17 states used testing methods that could have the effect of underestimating lead levels in water.

Three typical methods were uncovered, which environmental officials have warned against Philadelphia used all three, documents show.

Many water departments across the US reacted to the Guardians report by saying they had changed their protocols after the EPAs memo in February. At least one, St Petersburg, Florida, clarified that while it does have instructions that advise opening taps gently, it uses trained technicians to collect water. Others said instructions were provided by states, or that the EPAs guidance was unclear.

Philadelphia is now under increasing pressure to change test methods that scientists said may underestimate the amount of lead found in water.

People are very concerned, said Jonathan King, a Philadelphia-based patent attorney and father of an 18-month-old girl. King and another Philadelphia resident, urban planner Tony Spagnoli, organized a campaign called Philly Unleaded Project, hoping to test the water in hundreds of homes. Lab tests will be guided by Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, the scientist who helped uncover the lead scandal in Flint.

Meanwhile, following questions from the Guardian, the Environmental Protection Agency said it sent a letter warning the Philadelphia water department to change the way it tests for lead. The EPA warned a decade ago that cities should stop using techniques such as removing filters from faucets.

On May 26, EPA sent a letter to the PWD commissioner that instructed PWD that they change their [lead] sampling protocols to follow current guidance regarding aerators and pre-stagnation flushing, the EPA told the Guardian. The letter requests confirmation from the city of their plan to adjust their sampling procedures.

Elsa OMalley, three, combs her hair after wetting it with tap water. Katy OMalley, 39, mother of two, and their family drink tap water, and she recently was concerned enough to have to city water department come out and test. Photograph: Mark Makela for the Guardian

Experts said three seemingly innocuous instructions provided to residents in Philadelphia could have a profound impact on how much lead is found in water: removing the filter at the tip of the faucet; running the tap before a six-hour test period; and slowly pouring water sample bottles.

The EPA told water departments not to remove the filters, called aerators, in 2006. Running the water before a test period, called pre-flushing, was said to be against the intent of federal regulations in 2008. In February of this year, the agency also recommended an end to the practice of slowly pouring water into bottles. But all of these protocols appear to remain on the books in Philadelphia.

And despite estimates that 50,000 homes in the city are connected to mains with high-risk lead service lines, the citys most recent tests included only 34 with lead pipes. In the previous testing cycle, just 27 such homes were tested. In 2005, only 20 homes with lead service lines were included in tests, documents obtained under open records requests show.

The Philadelphia water department declined to comment for this article, and instead said the Guardians articles have spread misinformation on such a critical health topic and that stories contained numerous factual inaccuracies.

The Pennsylvania department of environmental protection has said it is only required to have copies of the citys testing plans and that it doesnt actually approve them, then referred further questions about the citys tests to the Philadelphia water department.

Publicly, the water department has responded to criticism by stating the citys water is lead-free when it leaves treatment facilities, despite common industry knowledge that the majority of lead contamination happens when water reaches home plumbing.

Documents obtained by the Guardian under freedom of information laws show that privately, the Philadelphia water department has criticized public debate over whether its testing methods are sound and lobbied against EPA efforts to curb their use.

EPA guidance should be backed with peer-reviewed published studies, said Gary Burlingame, the water departments lab director and de facto spokesman, in a February letter that lobbied the EPA to continue to allow Philly to use the testing methods scientists have warned against.

That way, he said, water utilities can work proactively with their state agencies to stay up-to-date on the science and on how best to apply that science for public health protection. The news media, he added, is not the appropriate venue for resolving such questions.

Professionally, Burlingame has already had some experience analyzing whether removing faucet filters affects tests.

He was one of a trio of experts who authored a report on Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, which had a case of water-based lead poisoning in 2006. Burlingame and the others found that contamination was detected in the childs water, at least in part because the local health department did not routinely remove the aerator for lead-in-water tests, as the water department did. It was soon after that incident, in 2006, that the EPA advised against removing the filters in lead testing.

Questioning the science, in emails disclosed to the Guardian, Burlingame told the EPA he was now setting up his own tests to scrutinise whether removing faucet filters made any difference to results.

Tony Spagnoli, 33, with his two children, Leila, two, and Julian, four. Spagnoli is a Philadelphia resident who is beginning a citizen-led effort to get lead-in-water tests for other Philadelphia families. Photograph: Mark Makela for the Guardian

Perhaps the most pervasive effect of recent criticism of the Philadelphia water department has been an erosion of trust in government.

Jonathan King, the Philadelphia patent attorney, became concerned about his own waters safety after media reports about Flint, Michigan, made national headlines. He contacted Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who traveled to Flint to test the citys water.

Eventually, King and Tony Spagnoli, a Philadelphia urban planner, organized the Philly Unleaded Project launched this week. The citizen-led campaign hopes to test water in hundreds of homes for $63 per kit.

Advocates are hoping to find grants to help the citys poor, more than a quarter (25.8%) of the population, test their water. Almost one-third of the citys children younger than six, the population most vulnerable to lead poisoning, live in poverty.

I live in a house that was built in 1905. I knew there was a pretty high likelihood that we have a lead pipe or lead solder, said Spagnoli, a 33-year-old Philadelphia transplant and father of two toddlers. I think theres no harm in double-checking the science, he said.

Theres nothing to lose and everything to gain.

There is no doubting the gravity of Philadelphias health concerns associated with lead.

A national health study showed that Pennsylvania has the second highest percentage of children with elevated lead levels in their blood, behind only New York state. The 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report suggested Pennsylvania had more than twice the national average number of cases.

Philadelphia, with 3,400 cases, has the most children with elevated lead levels of any county in Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia children also live with a number of risk factors for lead poisoning: old housing stock, concentrated poverty, low breastfeeding rates and poor nutrition.

Yet when children are found to have elevated lead levels, a health department team inspects the building. But water is not routinely tested.

In a telling exchange at a public hearing in February, a health official conceded the limitations of her departments investigations.

Our testing suggests that none of the lead exposure in homes of children with elevated blood lead levels need be attributed to water, Phillys deputy health commissioner Carolina Johnson told a panel of city council members.

Tony Spagnoli with his family. Photograph: Mark Makela for the Guardian

But youre not testing, responded councilwoman Helen Gym.

Well, we have, Johnson said. We have done some studies where we did do it, but it didnt help, so we dont routinely do it I mean, wed have to be trained in how to collect the samples, the whole process.

Contemporary research on childrens exposure to lead via water contradicts Johnsons assertion that there is no link between lead levels and exposure to water most prominently from the pediatrician who helped uncover the lead crisis in Flint.

Regrettably, our research reveals that the potentially increasing threat of lead in drinking water may dampen the significant strides in childhood lead-prevention efforts, wrote Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha. As our aging water infrastructures continue to decay, and as communities across the nation struggle with finances and water supply sources, the situation in Flint, Michigan, may be a harbinger for future safe drinking-water challenges.

In Philly, an old and financially strapped city, skepticism about the water department is mixed with existing tension between the local government and residents.

I dont trust the city at all, for anything, said Navajo Tafari, a 46-year-old father of five children ranging from ages two to 26. I pay my taxes, I go to work, I do what Im supposed to do, but as far as, like, trust no, I dont.

Tafari said he cooks and washes with city tap water but buys bottled water to drink. He lives on the same street at the Spagnolis, in Germantown, one of the oldest settlements in America.

Until they actually start to spend some money on infrastructure, this is where were at, Tafari said. And until enough people get sick, Imma just flat out say it until some other people get sick other than black people, no I dont see it changing.

  • This article was amended on 3 June 2016 to correct the surname of the OMalley family as well as Katy OMalleys age.

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