Toxic At Every Level: Lead Pipes Burden Clarksburg, W.Va.
Thousands of homes in Clarksburg have received water filtration pitchers and notices in the past few months. The notice lets residents know their drinking water is flowing through lead pipes.
Tom Friddle, 60, got a filter and he plans on using it. He stood in this front yard with a small dog on a leash.
“I got a dog and cat. They're my kids. So I'll make sure their water is just as fresh as mine,” said Friddle.
The local fire department, water utility, and state National Guard have hand delivered more than 3,000 filters to these homes and businesses.
Millions of Americans get their water through lead service lines. The alarm sounded in Clarksburg when three children in town tested positive for elevated levels of lead in their blood.
The State Department of Health and Human Resources says 31 children in Harrison County presented elevated lead levels in 2020. Same goes for 447 children in West Virginia from 2015 to 2019.
On the same street as Friddle and his dog, Tommy Dodd stood on his porch reading his notice. The houses on his street were built in the early 1900s. He figured this notice might be coming.
“The only thing we’ve used our water for in the last three or four months was just to wash our clothes, take a shower in,” Dodd said. “I don't even think it was a great idea to use it to rinse off our toothbrushes. But we did that.”
Dodd has lived in this home for 14 years, on and off again. He has three sons, ages 12, 14, and 17. When Dodd moved back to this street, his middle son, Keenan, was in first grade.
“His attention, his focus, his memory. It's like he can't do two or three steps at one time,” Dodd said.
Kids exposed to certain lead levels can develop cognitive and behavioral issues. Dodd plans to ask for a lead test during his son’s next routine checkup. Keenan is starting high school this year.
“I can't say it's the lead,” Dodd said. “Ever since we lived here, he's had trouble in school.”
There are about 8,500 homes, businesses and other customers that get their drinking water from the local public utility. Of those, about a quarter are suspected to have lead services pipes, based on records reviewed by the Clarksburg Water Board.
The water board says it has regularly sampled water over the years to check for elevated lead levels in accordance with federal standards.
“We've always been in compliance. So to be notified that we had a home out of compliance was shocking,” said Clarksburg Water Board President Paul Howe.
So far, 33 homes have been confirmed as having high levels of lead in their drinking water. Just 6% of customers have had their water tested at this point.
The water board says no school, hospital or daycare in Clarksburg has shown elevated lead levels.
But the water board will keep testing and reviewing lines. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Bureau for Public Health have ordered the public utility to fix the problem on their own dime.
“If we can get in there and replace the lines that are causing us problems now and do a greater system upgrade, I think that might be in the best interest for our public,” Howe said.
To assure Clarksburg customers and health agencies that the water is safe, the board signed off on an action plan on Aug. 18.
It outlines a four-prong approach that will inspect all 8,500 service lines. The board will test each customer’s water. It will also confirm the material each line contains.
That will involve records reviews and visual inspections, which can require digging into the roads and people’s yards to get to the pipes. All confirmed lead lines will be replaced by the utility.
The board will also consider corrosion control measures. This could involve adding phosphate to the central water supply, to prevent lead pipes from leaching.
That could cost $15 million and up to three years to complete. The EPA and state have yet to approve the plan.
Not just Clarksburg
Lead lines are common. It’s estimated that 20,000 customers have lead service lines throughout West Virginia.
In the 1980s, Congress banned the installation of lead pipes. Lines that were already in the ground can still be used, though environmental groups say these lines should be replaced immediately.
“If you have a lead pipe in the ground, you're only one act of incompetence away from sickening people,” said Erik Olson, senior strategic director of health programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It's what happened in Flint [Michigan]. It's what happened in Newark, New Jersey.”
According to federal standards, utilities have to keep an eye on the water coming out of these pipes through regular sampling, something Clarksburg says it’s been doing.
Olson believes current sampling standards under the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule are inadequate. The rule also gives utilities 15 years to replace bad pipes.
“It allows water utilities to test less frequently and less than we believe is urgently needed,” Olson said.
The greatest risk is to children, who can experience developmental issues, like a delay in acquiring speech or learning issues. High levels can cause seizures.
“We're not supposed to have lead in our body. It's really not required in biological systems for anything,” said Jim Becker, who specializes in occupational and environmental medicine at Marshall Health. “It's a toxin at every level.”
Local news outlets have reported that no child in Clarksburg needs treatment yet, but that doesn’t mean they aren't experiencing effects.
Children are considered to have excessive exposure at 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But treatment to extract lead from the body is recommended at nine times that amount.
“The decision to treat is really a decision about the risks versus the benefits of treatment. Treatment of children with elevated lead levels isn't completely free of hazard,” Becker said.
The U.S. Senate has passed a bipartisan infrastructure package that would allocate $1.5 billion to replace lead service lines. Democrats hope to pass a budget reconciliation bill with even more funds. Olson is pushing legislators to earmark another $30 billion, which President Joe Biden had originally called for.
“Water utilities are saying ‘Look, we just need some help to pay to pull out these lead pipes,’” said Olson. “There is a once-in-a-generation opportunity right now,”
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.