Newark Lead Crisis: Why Are the Water Filters Not Working?
Eric Roy, Ph.D.
As a chemist, I was disappointed (but not surprised) to learn that a water filter made by Pur is having performance failures in Newark, despite being certified to remove lead. The goal of this article is to explain how water filter testing/certifications work, and to point out the most common reasons why a certified product can fail under real-world conditions
How Does Water Filter Certification Work?
Before going into the specific technical reasons why filters could have failed, it’s important to understand how and why water filter companies undergo 3rd party certifications from organizations like National Sanitation Foundation (NSF).
Any water filter company that wants to get their product "certified" must:
- Pay the certification agency to test that the product meets the specifications of the test protocol (more on this below).
- Pay for project management, site visits, and listing fees to "maintain" the certification.
In addition to strengthening their marking claims, there are business reasons why water filter companies elect to pay the high cost of obtaining certifications instead of demonstrating that their product works through independent laboratories. For example, certain government entities require that products carry specific certifications to back marketing claims, and often times carrying these certifications opens up the door to large-scale government procurement (the City of Newark purchased over 35,000 of these filters for their citizens).
NSF/ANSI Standard 53 Test Protocol For Lead Removal
A lot of the people we talk to are surprised to learn that the criteria used to performance test water filters is standardized and, and may not apply to their water.
In the case of “NSF certified” filters for lead removal, the filter must reduce lead from 150 parts per billion to a certain level in room temperature water that is free of other of harmful contaminants. These tests are run at 2 different pH values (6.5 & 8.5), for the manufacturer-specified lifetime of the filter (in gallons), at a manufacturer-specified flow rate (in gallons per minute).
Water filter companies don’t get extra points for: reducing lead to undetectable levels, being able to handle higher lead concentrations, performance in the presence of other metals, having consistent performance across the entire gallon capacity, operating at higher flow rates, or performing tests at different pH values. In the eyes of certification bodies, filters either meet the performance specification or they don't.
Understanding the framework of "certification" is important in understanding why products that are certified to remove lead can fail under real-world conditions.
Newark's Water May Not Be Well Represented by Product Testing Procedure
As we discussed earlier, “certified” filters undergo a standardized testing protocol in a controlled laboratory environment. Unfortunately, controlled laboratory studies don't always match the real-world conditions found in customer's homes.
For example, the filter's real-world performance can break down if:
- The water’s initial lead levels are above 150 parts per billion
- The filter was flowing at a faster flow rate than specified
- The temperature of the water is different than the test protocol
- If other contaminants are present in the water that consume the lead removal media
The End User May Have Used the Filter Outside of Manufacturer's Specifications
Sometimes the consumer misunderstands how to read the manufacturer's specs. For example, water filters are rated for a gallon capacity, which the manufacturers translate to an approximate filter lifetime, based on normal usage. For example, a filter that is rated to handle 100 gallons of water with 150 ppb lead might have a 3 month estimated lifetime based on "normal use." However, if the end user passes 100 gallons of water through the filter in a single day, the capacity will be saturated in a day. During the Flint lead crisis, we learned that families were using a single filter to fill up large water jugs for bathing, because they thought that the water filter's expiration was time based, not a gallon capacity. Unfortunately, this practice saturated the filter with lead much more quickly than the estimated lifetime.
Poor Manufacturing QA/QC or Changes to the Filter
It's well-understood that quality control can suffer when manufacturing is transitioned to low-cost factories. If the cartridge manufacturing facility quietyly changed anything about the filter's construction, or there was a QA/QC lapse in production, the certification agencies may not catch the performance change until the next testing cycle (which is typically every 5 years).
The Type of Filter Distributed by Newark Allows Users to Easily Operate the Filter out of Spec
One of the negative things “end of faucet” filters is that the user can easily run hot water through the filter. Manufacturers of these products issue guidance against it in their spec sheets, but people regularly ignore the warnings so they can have filtered hot water (or so they think). What isn’t necessarily obvious to the consumer is that hot water can impact the performance of a water filter because hot water typically has much higher lead and other heavy metal levels than cold water. This is due to a number of factors (e.g. residence time in hot water tanks, temperature dependence of metal leaching). If an unexpectedly high “slug” of heavy metals flowed through the cartridge, the lead removal media will become saturated faster than the gallon rating on the package. Once the filter is saturated, it's useless. On top of this, hot water often has higher concentrations of bacterial and other particles that can “foul” a filter and negatively impact the performance.
Unfortunately, the filters in Newark are not performing to the levels that the customer (City and Citizens of Newark) was led to believe by the filter manufacturer. Hopefully, this event will prompt cities to independently test water filters before using public funds to purchase them.
Full Disclosure: Despite being critical of the “pay-to-play” nature of certification, Hydroviv's products are in the process of undergoing product certification by NSF. The decision to do so is purely a business decision (some governments require that products be NSF certified). The reality is that Hydroviv filters have always exceeded the performance requirements set by NSF/ANSI Standard 53.
Does Your Home Have Lead Plumbing? Here's How To Tell
Eric Roy, Ph.D. Scientific Founder
We get a lot of questions about lead service lines and how to tell if you have lead pipes, and we thought that it would be worth putting together an article that talks about some of the lesser known places where lead can exist in residential plumbing. Most people are surprised to learn that up until 2014, EPA allowed lead exist in fixtures & valves used for drinking water lines!
The Evolution of “Lead Free” Plumbing
When the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was amended in 1986, it mandated that residential plumbing could not use any pipe, pipe fitting, solder, flux, or fixture that was not “lead free.” While the term “lead free” seems pretty straightforward, the law allowed for the definition of "lead free" to evolve. The chart below shows allowable lead levels in solder, pipes, fittings, and fixtures through the 25+ years that lead was phased out of plumbing. It's worth pointing out that, it wasn’t until very recently (2014) that all pipes/fittings/fixtures used for drinkable water were required to contain negligible amounts of lead.
Maximum Levels of Lead Allowed in Residential Plumbing
|Years||Solder/Flux||Pipes, Fittings, Valves|
How to Determine If Plumbing in Your Home Is Lead Free
Solder: Unfortunately, there is no easy way to visually tell how much lead is in soldered joints after the connection is made. If you are getting plumbing work done, it's ok to ask your plumber to see the package for the solder that they are using. It should prominently say “lead free” on it.
What To Do If Your Home Has Lead Plumbing
As the US has become increasingly aware of lead contamination in drinking water because of the ongoing crisis in Flint, recent violations in large cities like Pittsburgh, and longstanding lead problems in old cities like Chicago and New York City, more and more people are asking what they can do to minimize their family's exposure to lead.
The best way, bar none is to:
- Use a high quality filter at each faucet used for drinking. Any filter should meet or exceed NSF Standard 53 for lead filtration performance.
If you are unable to use a rated filter, or if the filter you use does not protect against lead (like most pitchers and fridge filters), you can take the following steps to minimize exposure:
- Allow your faucet to run for at least 2 minutes before collecting water for consumption (drinking/cooking/washing food). Doing so allows the water sitting in the pipes to flush out and be replaced by fresh water flowing through the large mains.
- Only use the faucet at a slow flow rate when collecting water for consumption. Doing so minimizes the amount of lead particulates that can be swept into the stream and carried to the faucet.
As always, we encourage everyone to take advantage of Hydroviv's "Help No Matter What" technical support policy, where we answer questions related to drinking water and water filtration, even if you have no desire to purchase our products. Drop us a line about lead pipes in homes at email@example.com, or use our live chat function.
Related Articles:Does New York City Tap Water Expose More People To Lead Than Flint?
Pittsburgh's Lead Level Exceeds EPA Limits In 2016
Why You Are Being Mislead By Your TDS Meter
What Do Municipalities Do To Prevent Lead From Leaching Into Drinking Water?
Analies Dyjak | Policy Nerd
Flint, Pittsburgh, Providence, and Portland are just some of the major U.S. cities dealing with high levels of lead in drinking water. Since Pittsburgh just began adding Orthophosphate to its distribution system, we decided to put together an article explaining what exactly this treatment technique is, and other popular municipal treatment techniques used for lead mitigation.
Why Is Lead Such A Big Problem And What Are We Doing To Fix It?
The 2014 drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan made municipalities around the country turn the mirror on their own problems with lead contamination. Lead remains a major issue for cities and towns throughout the entire country. It may feel like Americans have been talking about lead exposure for years, so why is it still such a big problem? The answer is pretty simple: Homes in the U.S. built before 1986 most likely contain lead pipes, plumbing, and solder. To make matters worse, water distribution lines also tend to adhere to this cutoff date. Lead is still a big part of infrastructure in the United States.
Since municipalities are tasked with mitigating lead exposure, we wanted to go over some popular treatment techniques that are being used throughout the United States, and their effectiveness at removing lead from drinking water.
Orthophosphate: Corrosion Inhibitor
Orthophosphate is a common system-wide corrosion inhibitor. It’s created by combining phosphoric acid with zinc phosphate and sodium phosphate. Together these chemicals create a mineral-like crust on the inside of lead service lines. If municipalities are willing to follow a strict dosing and monitoring schedule, orthophosphate can be extremely effective at reducing lead levels in drinking water.
Other larger cities around the country have also adopted Orthophosphate as a solution for lead-contaminated drinking water. In June of 2004, Washington, D.C. introduced orthophosphate to its distribution system, following major District-wide lead contamination.
According to EPA, the health effects of phosphates are not well known and FDA has stated that they’re “generally recognized as safe.” The Lead and Copper Rule requires the use of polyphosphate or orthophosphate whenever a municipality is in exceedance of lead standards set by EPA. Both have been cited as effective, but some municipalities disagree. According to city officials in Madison, Wisconsin, utility providers tried both of these additives and neither of them effectively reduced lead levels in drinking water. Because they were unable to find a corrosion inhibitor that worked, Madison officials decided to mandate the removal of all lead service lines.
It’s important to remember that orthophosphate isn’t a permanent fix, nor does it magically remove lead pipes. Orthophosphate has been cited by EPA as an “interim Optimal Corrosion Control Treatment (OCCT) modification.” It will also increase your water bill. In Washington, D.C., orthophosphate costs DC Water customers approximately $700,000 annually.
Problems With Partial Lead Service Line Replacements
Partial service line replacements are another mitigation tool used to reduce lead exposure. To put it candidly: it's extremely invasive. People are often surprised to learn that lead levels actually increase in the months following a partial service line replacement. Water that comes in contact with lead-laden debris or freshly uncovered piping can easily become contaminated. This type of disruption negates any sort of expensive treatment being used by a utility provider, like orthophosphate. If a municipality is in exceedance with the 15 part per billion Action Level, they are mandated (under the Lead and Copper Rule) to replace a certain percentage of lead service lines every year. If you’re curious municipal requirements under the Lead and Copper Rule, click here!
Who Pays For Lead Line Replacements?
Ratepayers are typically responsible for paying for public water line replacements. However, homeowners are responsible for covering the cost of replacing lead service lines that distribute water directly into their homes. According to EPA, a homeowner that elects to do so can expect to pay anywhere from $2,500 to $8,000 per line. This is not feasible for most households in the United States. Additionally, people are still at risk of lead exposure because lead pipes may still exist at various locations throughout a distribution system. Some municipalities offer subsidies or rebates on private lead service line replacements, but not all. In Madison, Wisconsin for example, homeowners who are eligible can apply for a rebate which covers up to $1,500 of the line replacement.
Can pH Reduce Lead In Drinking Water?
Many municipalities believe that adjusting the pH of drinking water is the best way to reduce lead exposure, and here’s why: Acidic water increase corrosivity, which causes lead pipes to leach into drinking water. The idea is that by making water more alkaline (opposite direction on the pH scale), the corrosivity will decrease. This may sound good in theory, but a municipality must still correct for chloride when doing so. According to the World Health Organization, chloride “increases the electrical conductivity of water and thus increases its corrosivity” and “increases the rate of pitting corrosion of metal pipes.” Similar to the other treatments mentioned in this article, changing the pH of drinking water does not get rid of lead service lines. Additionally, maintaining a balanced pH throughout an entire distribution system is not an easy task.
How Do You Know If Lead Treatment Works?
Lead is different from other contaminants because problems arise at the tap, rather than the source water. The only way to truly know if a corrosion control method is working is to test every single tap (which is completely unfeasible). Under the Lead and Copper Rule, most municipalities are only required to test 50-100 homes every 3 years or every monitoring period. This is not nearly enough data for a larger municipality like New York City. There’s just no way to know if a system-wide treatment technique is working to the best of its ability, so the burden and responsibility is on the consumer.Other Articles We Think You Might Enjoy:
Lead: What You Need To Know
Orthophosphate and Lead Contamination
Why Are So Many Schools Testing Positive For Lead?
Legionnaires' Disease In Flint Tap Water: What You Need To Know
Eric Roy, Ph.D.
A new report was released which confirmed that an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Flint, Michigan that killed 12 people and sickened at least 87 during 2014 and 2015 was likely caused by low chlorine levels in the municipal water system. It's another example of Flint's broader water crisis that resulted from widespread incompetence and fraud. We will add to this article as more questions come in.
What Is Legionnaires' Disease?
Legionnaires is a pneumonia, caused the bacterium Legionella pneumophila. Legionella pneumophila grows in water, and can enter the lungs through tiny water droplets. If a person doesn't have a robust immune system, they can become very sick, or even die.
Where Is Legionella Found?
According to Marc Edwards (A professor at Virginia Tech), Legionella is found in about 25 percent of all water samples collected nationally. It's a common bacterium, but it's usually kept under control in municipal water.
How Is Legionella Typically Controlled In Municipal Tap Water
In properly treated municipal water, Legionella is kept under control by chlorine-based disinfectants, so the bacterium cannot reach dangerous levels. In Flint, it appears that not enough chlorine was added to the water to leave enough residual chlorine to keep the bacterium under control, which is what caused the Legionnaires' outbreak in Flint.
Is Flint Still At Risk Of Legionnaires Disease?
According to Edwards, chlorine in Flint's water is now at the correct level, so the likelihood of Legionnaires' disease popping back up is minimal. It is our opinion at Hydroviv that concerned Flint residents should take every piece of advice issued by Dr. Edwards. If he says that there is enough chlorine, there is enough chlorine.Other Articles We Think You'll Enjoy:
3 Years Of Hell: Reflections of a Flint Water Crisis Victim
Largely Unreported Water Quality Crisis Underway In Flint Michigan
Tap Water Chlorination: What You Need To Know
Please Stop Using TDS (or ppm) Testers To Evaluate Water Quality
Eric Roy, Ph.D. | Scientific Founder
***Updated on July 15, 2019***
We get quite a few questions about TDS/ppm meters (like this one) and TDS measurements. While we love when people take steps to learn more about their water, some people (including journalists from reputable publications- Example #1 & Example #2) have used TDS/ppm meters to draw false conclusions about water quality, which incited fear in people already in the midst of a terrible water quality crisis. In this article, we answer the questions that we get asked the most about TDS measurements and TDS meters.
What is TDS? What Does A TDS/ppm Meter Measure?
TDS stands for Total Dissolved Solids which is related to the total charged mineral content of water. TDS can be easily determined by measuring the conductivity of a water sample, which is exactly what inexpensive TDS probes do. TDS meters typically display the total amount of dissolved solids in parts per million or ppm. If you start with deionized water (which has a TDS of zero), and expose it to minerals that contain sodium, calcium, and magnesium ... the water's TDS or ppm rises. This is why there's no such thing as deionized water in nature. Depending on a region’s geology, natural TDS/ppm levels can vary across the US, and this variability has nothing to do with the water quality (except in extreme cases when the water is too salty to drink).
What Does a TDS/ppm Meter Not Measure?
Because TDS/ppm is an aggregate measure of charged compounds in water, uncharged things like motor oil, gasoline, many pharmaceuticals, and pesticides do not contribute to a TDS/ppm measurement. For example, the glass on the left in this article's header image contains deionized water with Malathion (an organophosphate pesticide) dissolved into it at 100 times higher concentration than allowed by the EPA for drinking water, and the TDS/ppm probe reads 000.
What About Lead, Arsenic or Chromium 6?
Even though these toxic metals are charged when dissolved in water, a TDS/ppm meter does not give meaningful information about their presence or concentration in water. There are two main reasons for this:
- A TDS/ppm meter is a nonselective measurement and cannot differentiate among different ions. A more sophisticated piece of equipment is needed to perform those types of measurements. The value of 184 that was measured using a TDS meter in a prominent Huffington Post Article was not the lead concentration… it was the water's natural TDS level (which is dominated by minerals like calcium, magnesium, and sodium).
- A TDS tester is not sensitive enough to measure toxic levels of lead, chromium-6, or arsenic, even if they are present in a sample. This is because the reading displayed on an inexpensive TDS meter is in parts per million, while things like lead, chromium-6, and arsenic are toxic at part per billion concentrations (1000 times lower). Using a TDS meter to measure ppb lead concentrations in tap water is like trying to use a car’s odometer to measure a child's height…. It's the wrong tool. For example, the water sample shown on the right hand side of this article's header image has lead levels that are 100x the EPA limit, and the TDS reading teetered between 000 and 001.
To reiterate: Meaningful lead and arsenic measurements cannot be made using a TDS/ppm meter (or any other handheld device). They must be measured by trained staff in analytical laboratories that use much more sophisticated scientific equipment.
Do Hydroviv Filters Lower TDS/ppm?
No. Hydroviv’s filters selectively filter harmful things from your water (like lead, chromium-6, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, petroleum products, disinfection byproducts), and things that make water taste and smell bad (chlorine, chloramine, sulfur). Hydroviv’s home water filtration systems don’t remove minerals like calcium and magnesium because there’s no reason to. In fact, we use some types of filtration media that actually add minerals to the water, so TDS/ppm levels in water filtered through a Hydroviv system are sometimes slightly higher than unfiltered water.
Should I Buy a TDS/ppm Meter To Test My Drinking Water For High TDS Levels?
No. There is absolutely no reason to drink low TDS/ppm or deionized water. If you are concerned about water quality, put the money toward the purchase of an effective drinking water filter that removes harmful contaminants from your water.
What If I Already Have a TDS/ppm Meter?
If you have a TDS/ppm meter (like this one), we recommend giving it to a curious child who has an interest in science! Use this opportunity to teach them about dissolved minerals by encouraging them to test different types of water (e.g. distilled, rain, river, lake) and try to explain their findings! Feel free to reach out to us at (firstname.lastname@example.org for educational ideas involving TDS meters).
If you mail it to us, we’ll make sure it finds a good home in a school classroom, and we’ll send you a $20 coupon code to use on Hydroviv's website.
Other Great Articles That We Think You'll Enjoy:How EPA Regulations For Lead Are Protecting Municipalities, Not Citizens
What Science Says About Fluoride In Tap Water
3 Years Of Hell: Reflections From A Victim Of The Flint Water Crisis
LuLu Brezzell | Guest Contributor
Editor's Note: This article is part of an initiative to include stories on our blog that connect water quality issues to the everyday lives of real people. To raise awareness of the 3 year anniversary of the beginning of the Flint Water Crisis, Flint resident LuLu Brezzell describes the roller coaster ride that her family and fellow Flint residents went through once they realized that their water was not safe to drink. Ms. Brezzell was gracious enough to share her story with our audience, and was not paid to do so.
Fear, the feeling that takes over when you are told that your water source that flows into our home was filled with lead and bacteria. The same water we have been using to drink, cook with, and bathe. Fear, the feeling of knowing that your children may have been exposed to an invisible, tasteless, odorless poison that can cause irreversible damage. As a parent, there is no greater fear.
This is the same fear that I'm sure every single member of my community felt.
Three years ago, as part of a cost-cutting measure, a state-appointed emergency manager made the decision to switch Flint's drinking water from Detroit's municipal water to the Flint River. Flint's water plant hadn’t treated raw water in decades, never mind the fact that it was not equipped to manage industry standard corrosion control measures that would prevent corrosive river water from eating away at Flint's aging infrastructure.
On the day of the water supply switch, the emergency manager, mayor and other council members all gathered at the Flint Water Plant, and ceremoniously toasted each other with glasses of the new tap water.
Who could have expected that this toast would mark the day that our city lost its access to clean safe water?
Visible Symptoms Hinting At A Much Larger Citywide Problem?
Soon after the switch, my youngest child, who wasn’t even two years old, started to have serious issues with her skin, including persistent rashes that OTC treatments couldn't stop. She was eventually prescribed a steroid ointment that slathered onto her, and wrapped her up like a mummy with plastic wrap. It was horrible, in part because we had no idea what was causing the problem.
Here's the short answer: It was the water she was bathing in.
Shortly thereafter, we had the US CDC, EPA, MDEQ and other agencies all in our home, taking water samples and asking questions in an attempt to diagnose what was causing these issues. We weren't alone in this, it was happening all over our City. It was like watching a horror movie, where you have no idea what was going to happen next.
Our city was in the midst of a widespread water contamination emergency.
An Inspiring Call For Help
My other daughter (8 years old at the time) became very concerned with what she saw happening in Flint, and felt like she needed to do something. Here I am feeling helpless and my child is begging me to let her do something to help.
So help we did! We participated in protests and rallies to raise awareness of the water crisis. We would go out and find people passing out water and jump in a volunteer with them. We made videos and took pictures that we could share on social media.
One day we heard about a bus traveling from Flint to Washington, DC for the congressional hearing for Governor Rick Snyder. My daughter thought that if we were going to go to Washington, DC... it would probably be worth it to write a letter to (then) President Obama. About a week before the trip, she sent the letter, and I was careful to remind her that President Obama was very busy, and that he probably wouldn't be able to read it. The trip to DC came and went as planned, and a good learning experience.
But soon after we returned to Flint, we got a call...
From the White House.
President Obama was touched by her letter and wanted to come to Flint to meet her and to see first hand what was being done for the water crisis.
Flint In The National Spotlight
When that letter was released so much changed, because The Flint Water Crisis was now in the spotlight. Up until that point, I had been begging outside groups to come in and do testing (we didn't trust the testing that the city was conducting). Once the story hit the national news, things changed. We were getting emails and messages offering us water filtration systems, testing, and other products. It was so hard to keep up with everything. I was overwhelmed but grateful that finally it felt like someone was listening and wanting to help.
Navigating Conflicting Voices In A Storm Of Information
Unfortunately, some people saw the media spotlight and chaos as an opportunity to make a name for themselves, or even worse... profit from the situation.
Like anyone, I wanted answers and was willing to listen to everyone who claimed to have a solution that could fix our problem. It's easy to look back and say that I should have focused on certain opinions and ignored other voices, but it's important to remember that at the time... it was complete chaos, and even though we were grasping at straws, we were hopeful that the next straw grasped could be the solution we were looking for.
Looking back, I feel fortunate that while others were making names for themselves, an outsider with no ties to Flint was willing to remain in the shadows while helping me weed through and understand all of the information.
What Lies Ahead For Flint's Tap Water?
It's been 3 years since Flint made the fateful water supply switch that turned an entire city upside down.
Unfortunately, it's much easier to make a mess than it is to clean it up.
Our city's pipes are irreparably damaged, and we're learning that it's not as easy as digging them up and replacing them. Precautions must be taken in the meantime to ensure that no addition exposure occurs as the pipes are swapped out. It's also important to remind ourselves that replacing the service lines will not do anything to fix any lead-containing solder, valves, or plumbing fixtures inside our homes. The official recommendation is that we continue to filter our water for lead, but I know that some residents continue to rely on bottled water.
Another problem that has gone largely unpublicized is that the city is having a hard time maintaining disinfectant levels in the water, which means that some areas have noticeably high chlorine levels while other parts of the pipe network have virtually no residual chlorine to keep the water sterile.
Tap water is something that most of us take for granted, but producing clean water at the municipal level is more complicated than most realize. Because of what we have gone through, I don’t think I will ever trust tap water ever again.
What's Changed In Our Home?
In the year since the letter not much has changed regarding how we use water. We still don’t use the tap water at our house for consumption. Showers are limited to 2 minutes because of how sensitive my families skin is to the water, even when filtered. Bottled water is still a very big part of our everyday lives. As much as an inconvenience as it is to constantly open up bottles of water it has almost become second nature.
On the activism and awareness front, my daughter is still doing her part to raise awareness of water quality issues, and to be a voice in support of quality science.
Mari and her hero, Dr. Hanna-Atisha speak to a crowd of 40K People At The Recent March For Science In Washington, DC
If you'd like to continue following our story, you can do so on Twitter (@LittleMissFlint)
Other Articles We Think You'll EnjoyLargely Unreported: Lead Contamination Crisis Underway In Flint, Michigan
Pittsburgh's 2016 Citywide Lead Levels Exceed EPA Standards
How To Tell If Your Home's Plumbing Has Lead In It