Lititz admits error in lead testing reports

By on February 24, 2016

Photo: Enid Martindale Creative Commons/flickr:

But tests show water is well within DEP-EPA standards

The state Department of Environmental Protection is doing an informal review of Lititz’s testing plans for copper and lead in borough homes.

Ryan McGovern, safe drinking water specialist in the DEP’s Lancaster office, communicated that in an e-mail sent Feb. 4 to Severn Trent, the private company that has operated the Lititz water system since 1988.

The DEP asked Severn Trent to submit its most current data to compare with its database.

“I think the best way to make sure we have the most current information on file and in our database is to ask you to (send) me a copy of the current plan you are following,” McGovern wrote.

The request comes after Severn Trent recently advised DEP of an error in its consumer confidence report, CCR, sent to customers between 2011 and 2013.

Higher Risk Homes

Water suppliers are required by EPA to test a sample of higher-risk homes — built prior to 1986 — every three years for lead, copper, and other items.

The DEP requires that all residents receive a CCR, also known as an annual drinking water quality report, every year. The same report is sent each year to residents between the three-year intervals.

One home that tested high in 2010 for lead — only 20 homes are required to be tested in the Lititz sample — was reported to the DEP but was not listed on the CCR.

The sample collected tested lead at 428 parts per billion and exceeded the action level of 15 ppb,. But even with that single high level — nearly 20 times higher than the next highest home tested in 2010 — Lititz’s overall 90th percentile result was still within state and federal regulations and therefore triggered no actionable requirements.

The 90th percentile is used by DEP for determining compliance. In 2010, the 90th percentile was 7 ppb, meaning that 90 percent of the samples collected were at or below 7 ppb. In addition, the homes tested in 2010 would have received the PA DEP’s required consumer notice following the 2010 tests.

Flint Comparisons

Shane Weaver, chair of the borough’s water services committee, addressed what he called media reports comparing Lititz’s water to Flint, Mich.

“(Flint’s) issues are largely a supply issue and the entire system was contaminated because the water was highly corrosive…that went through a lead piping system,” Weaver said at Tuesday night’s borough council meeting.

“Our system is largely cast (metal),” he said.

Weaver said if there were lead content issues, “we would see that throughout the distribution system wide” and not at one particular residence.

“That would lead me to believe that the source of that lead would be in that residence,” Weaver said.

Mike Wolgemuth, project manager for Severn Trent suggested it was likely that a clerical error created a “mistake and transposed the data from the 2007 testing in the 2011 and 2012 CCRs instead of the 2010 testing results.”

That error resulted in the omission of the high lead test of 428 ppb in 2010 from the reports sent to customers between 2010 and 2012, he said.

Generally there is very little lead in source drinking water leaving the treatment plant in Lititz — lead for the most part gets in a home’s tap when lead and copper leach out from plumbing.

Testing Problems

Severn Trent directs customers, who voluntarily agree to be tested, how to collect samples. Wolgemuth, who became project manager for Severn Trent here in June 2015, said the instructions given in years past “could have been better communicated.”

“We rely on information that customers give us, plus we’re relying on them (to take) the sample properly,” Wolgemuth said.

The DEP mandated that tap water be tested for lead and copper in 1993. The borough at that time had to take steps to address high lead and copper levels, he said.

Lititz had added a corrosion control additive by 1995, said Wolgemuth.

Lead issues are going to be site specific based on home built prior to 1986. Severn Trent is in the process of preparing to do lead and copper testing this summer and seeks to test older constructions homes that may have lead components.

Water Softeners

The water coming from the Lititz treatment plant is generally hard and many people in the borough use water softeners which make the water more corrosive, according to Severn Trent.

While Wolgemuth wouldn’t speculate on how lead could test off the charts at one home — 13 of the 20 homes tested had zero lead levels — he said the home that tested high in 2010 had a water softener.

“We add a corrosion inhibitor at the water plant; volunteers who test their water are instructed to bypass the water softener,” he said.

He said tests can also be skewed if volunteers don’t flush the water line.

“Many times what happens, even when customers correctly bypass their water softener, they should actually flush that line thoroughly the night before (testing),” he said.

People testing water are instructed to use a cold water tap, bypass water softener and let water sit in pipe for six hours, before collecting a sample, “that gives lead and copper time to leach into the drinking water.”

“But what the instructions don’t include is that customers should thoroughly flush their line to remove the softened, corrosive water out of the plumbing,” he said.

Lead Hazards

Water with lead contamination is still colorless, tasteless, and odorless. Its a heavy metal that can go virtually undetected in drinking water and excessive amounts of lead place adults at higher risk for cancer, stroke, and hypertension, according to DEP.

Fetuses, infants, and children up to the age of six have rapidly growing little bodies which, unfortunately, are quick and efficient absorbers of lead. Lead can cause brain damage, premature birth, reduced birth weight, seizures, behavioral disorders, and a lower IQ level in children.

What’s it all mean?

So what does this mean in the grand scheme of of how safe is Lititz’s water supply?

Karen Weibel, council president, says absolutely nothing beyond human error.

“Clearly there was a bad draw (in testing) or they did not go around the water softener to get such a bizarrely high number coming out of that home,” she said.

She said it was up to the home owner to get an additional test after being informed of high lead levels.

“We need to be clear though, there is no lead above the compliance rate within the water system in the borough,” Weibel said.

Wolgemuth points out that lead testing data for Lititz Borough from the DEP drinking water database shows that in the 2007, 2010 and 2013 testing years, the vast majority of tests resulted in either a zero level or a level which was within the action level set by Pennsylvania DEP.

Out of 60 tests, only two tests showed levels of lead above PA DEP’s action level of 15 ppb.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10 to 20 percent of human exposure to lead comes from lead in drinking water.

However, the DEP states that lead is rarely found in drinking water and usually is a result of corrosion of plumbing materials. The DEP states in the required consumer letter following lead testing, that houses built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, plumbing fixtures or solder.

However, the letter notes that even plumbing which is legally “lead free” may contain up to 8 percent lead.

Patrick Burns is a social media editor and staff writer for the Lititz Record Express. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at or at 721-4455

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