Philadelphia’s Lead-in-Water Problem is Worse Than It Knows
By D.L. Chandler | ecoWURD
Water is everywhere in an East Coast river-bank city like Philadelphia. And when it’s that visible, most who live there assume the quality of water they drink is in good shape.
Then again, maybe not.
Philadelphia has water problems, like every other big city. But the quality of the water reaching homes is under scrutiny. For poorer residents, especially those in majority Black neighborhoods, the level of concern forces thorough examination.
The city’s two most recent and authoritative drinking water quality reports might proudly note that the water is safe for consumption. However, could there be underlying factors hinting otherwise? Is the water really safe?
Philadelphia boasts a deep culinary scene, a large arts community, and home to several storied sports franchises. But it is also a city with a deep historical divide, a place of 1.6 million residents that has long remained one of the most racially and economically segregated places in the nation. Factoring in necessities such as transportation, safe schools, and adequate shopping, something as fundamental as water quality is often overlooked.
TO FLUSH OR NOT TO FLUSH THE PIPES
The city’s 2016 and 2017 Drinking Water Quality Reports are your typical government issue. Images of African Americans and other people of color are sprinkled throughout in an effort to promote the city’s diversity. In both reports, the reader is reminded that “our drinking water quality is better than standards set by the EPA.”
Still, that doesn’t answer a more problematic question: is the water in Black Philly neighborhoods such as Strawberry Mansion, Mantua, Nicetown, Overbrook, and Southwest safe enough to drink?
“At the source, the water is clean, but when it hits the homes that’s another question,” Jerome Shabazz shared with ecoWURD during a brief chat. Shabazz serves as the Executive Director of the Overbrook Environmental and Arts Education Center. A former employee of the Philadelphia Water Department, Shabazz has firsthand knowledge of water treatment facilities. And despite the city’s work to treat H2O based off federal standards, he argues that it’s just not the kind of priority it should be for the city.
And, tragically, as the city’s most distressed residents are busily tackling the day-to-day grind of poverty, it’s not the type of issue that immediately crosses their mind as a priority, either.
WHAT’S LEAD GOT TO DO WITH IT?
If Philly needs a villain to blame, it can easily point to lead.
The nation, at large, did eventually figure out how to prevent lead poisoning. In fact, the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency was the result of century’s worth of mounting concerns over the toxin’s fatal effects. President Nixon (a Republican) signed the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act in 1971, Congress banned it outright in 1976, and new laws throughout the 1980s, 1990s and into the early 2000s added new layers of protection.
But it never figured out how to eliminate all the lead that was left over and still contaminating old cities like Philly to this day.
The EPA, especially in its current Trumpian state, struggles to address the nation’s lead-in-water issue as best it can. It seems resigned to a wide-brush approach through its “Protect Your Family from Exposures to Lead” landing page. Aging homes make that effort harder: homes built before 1978 will have a high likelihood of lead paint inside the residence.
In the graphic above, nearly 90 percent of American homes built before 1940 contain lead-based paint. Beyond homes, other dangers include contaminated soil besigned by runoff from older leaded gasolines or products that contain lead, lead dust, and drinking water. In 2014, the Safe Drinking Water Act was amended to reduce the maximum allowed amount of lead via pipes, plumbing fittings and fixtures to 0.25 percent. Still, the EPA found that the use of hot water presented a challenge: the metal not only held together older brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures, but it also leaked into the water that flowed from them.
Now imagine that problem compounded by the average age of a Philly home: 93 years, according to the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab. That’s 40 years older than the median age of most American homes.
A CAUTIONARY TALE
Philly stands out as one of the nation’s more prominent cautionary tales on lead contamination. Indeed, the lead situation is so bad that the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) used it as a case study for a politely worded 2014 briefing on childhood blood lead research.
And there are lots of lead-driven problems unseen. Take Mantua resident Deniece Jacobs’ experience as a prime example of bad water quality unchecked in impoverished, underserved Philadelphia communities.
Jacobs recalls an incident that occurred at her boyfriend’s home just one street over about five years ago when a waste pipe burst in the home. The city dug up his basement and uncovered older terra cotta piping — clay pipes that were further interlocked with lead joints.
Jacobs always suspected something was amiss. Many homes in Mantua, a West Philly neighborhood nestled north of Spring Garden Street and East of 40th, were built before 1950. As the city’s 2016 Lead and Drinking Water Report tells it, the chemical element was found typically in homes built before 1950. Citywide.
One year after the discovery of the older piping in her boyfriend’s home, Jacobs noticed the city was back, now working on the main street’s piping and digging up the same terra cotta pipes she witnessed in her boyfriend’s home.
While she was never able confirm it, Jacobs began questioning the quality of her own water. Her son, now eight, began showing signs of attention deficit disorder and was officially diagnosed with the condition in 2017. And since 2010, several scholarly articles and research findings have established links between lead exposure in children and ADD.
“There’s no way in hell by the time the water reaches us that it’s anywhere close to being good for us. But if you can’t afford filters or bottled water, what can anyone really do about it,” Jacobs posed.
To get clearer answers on how the city measures water quality in specific neighborhoods, ecoWURD navigated the massive Philadelphia Water Department staff directory. After dozens of calls, voicemails and transfers to individuals that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) address these and other questions, ecoWURD eventually connected with the department’s General Manager of Public Affairs, Joanne Dahme.
We asked Dahme if the department has collected data that demonstrates a demographic breakdown of water quality from neighborhood to neighborhood. “No such vehicle is yet in place,” Dahme responded, but she did invite us to examine the department’s water quality pages for the most up-to-date information.
When asked if there were rumbles of pushback from citizens – like Jacobs – regarding water quality, Dahme stayed on script. “The findings of the latest water quality report follow the guidelines set by the EPA and the Safe Water Drinking Act.”
WORSE THAN FLINT?
Even with technological advances and renewed awareness, lead in water still raises serious concerns. Studies show the metal diminishes childhood development well into adulthood. In 2016, an investigation by The Guardian examined the water testing methods of 33 American cities and found that Philadelphia’s water department ranked among the worst.
Professor Marc Edwards agrees. Known for discovering the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, Edwards shared in a 2017 Q&A with The Crowd & Cloud that Philadelphia employed “cheats” to lower lead levels in testing before employing corrosion control. Despite denials and pushback, the city has used the same “cheats” – also referred to as “pre-flushing” – to lower the true amounts of lead that would be uncovered had water run through system piping.
That’s when Edwards became aligned with Philadelphia’s lead issue by way of patent attorney Jonathan King.
King’s original interest grew from worries over lead poisoning in his own home. He was horrified to discover that levels of the metal in his water were nearly three times past the EPA-approved level of the contaminant.
So, King – along with Tony Spagnoli – formed the currently-defunct Philly Unleaded project to promote lead testing kits to a wider group of people. Limited resources only allowed them to cover about a hundred people, far less than needed to cast a wider net over the problem. And while lead levels might be lower now than in times past, King believes that with wider testing, higher levels will be uncovered just by volume alone.
King (who is White) believes that much more vulnerable communities of color could benefit the most from a fair testing system and newer efforts to uncover the real truth about Philly’s lead problem. “At the very least, we should expect clean water. We pay for it, people of all demographics expect this to be a safe service and even someone like me had this issue,” King tells ecoWURD.
“What about people in Philadelphia that can’t go to the store to buy testing kits or don’t know how to contact the city to see if they’re subject to lead?”
PRIORITIZING THE WATER
“We have competing interests and priorities,” adds Shabazz. “Our current reality is competing with our historical thought.” As a young boy, he remembers being warned by neighbors not to drink the water at the local parks due to possible lead contamination from the pipes used at the time. Evoking “Separate But Equal,” Shabazz reflects on the 1960’s and ’70’s, when infrastructure in poor Black and Latinx neighborhoods didn’t get the same attention as their White counterparts.
Years later, Philadelphia and other regional jurisdictions began employing the use of what was called “secondary treatment” to the waters that flow from the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. This is how that process is supposed to look …
But, in earlier days, controls and general understanding of how to protect water sources were not in the public domain. Only those who worked in specific industries such as farming and manufacturing had access to that kind of information.
So, the city tackled the issue of improving infrastructure and how industries could collaborate on water health. Left out of that equation were average folks. Most of them Black.
Years later, Black Philadelphians remain the most at risk for bad water, a condition aggravated by high poverty. Families, individuals and children dwell in homes (and schools) that are less modern than their suburban counterparts and slowly gentrifying neighbors. The city can cite numbers and figures without a legal mandate to go above and beyond for its Black residents. But if Black Philadelphians still have to ask “Hey, are you going to drink that?” when they turn on the tap, the journey to inform, enlighten, and engage has only just begun.