York Water Co. finds some lead contamination

Sean Philip Cotter
York Dispatch

York Water Co. plans to replace all of the lead lines it owns over the next four years after tests found elevated levels of the contaminant in some area buildings' drinking water.

During its EPA-mandated water sampling, which water companies have to do every three years, York Water found in September that six of the 50 buildings it tested had more than 15 parts per billion of lead in their tap water, according to Jeff Hines, the company's president.

Hines said the houses the company tested were 50 of the 1,660 properties that make up the 3 percent of properties York Water serves where the company-owned lines running onto the property are still made of lead.

The York Water Co. celebrated 200 years by unveiling its historical marker Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016. Amanda J. Cain photo

"It’s among all of what they call our 'high-risk homes,'" he said. Hines said that more than half of those homes are in York City, with scatterings in the immediately surrounding municipalities and in the Mount Wolf and Manchester area north of the city.

Hines explained the various parts of the delivery system where it's possible for lead to get into the water. These days, the big water mains that carry the liquid under the roads aren't lead, but some of the pipes that go from the main lines onto properties are. And those pipes are in two parts: From the water main to the curb or property line, the pipe is owned by the company, and then the rest of the way into the building, the pipe is owned by the property owner.

That 3 percent number is talking about the company-owned part of the lines running  from the mains, said Hines, whose company serves about 65,000 properties, mostly in York County.

York Water is one of the  fewer than 5 percent of water systems around the state found in 2016 to have "actionable" levels of lead — meaning that 10 percent or more of the samples came back with 15 ppb or greater, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

And that's what the company is now replacing. Hines said his company is going to swap out 25 percent of those company-owned parts of the lines over the next four years, at which point the organization will have eliminated all the lead pipes it owns. York Water also  will replace the corresponding customer-owned lead parts of any of the pipes it works on.

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Hines said York Water doesn't know how many of the customer-owned parts of the lines are made of lead. He doesn't think it's many but recommends people check. If the pipes going into their houses are silver in color and magnets don't stick to them, they're probably made of lead. If that's the case, customers should contact York Water and get the tap water tested. If the kit shows elevated levels of lead — above 15 ppb — York Water will give the customers credit for 200 gallons of water a month to regularly flush the line to keep the lead content down.

Any customers who have homes built in 1935 or later are likely fine, he said. If there are elevated levels of lead in the water, flush the system regularly by running water at night and in the morning, and use cold water, which is less likely to pick up lead, for anything that's going to be consumed. Hot water is more likely to bring lead with it, and subsequently boiling the water doesn't get rid of lead, according to the EPA.

The EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both say there's no safe level of lead in drinking water, especially for children. Kids who consume lead — through drinking water, eating lead paint or any other way — can suffer brain damage, neurological problems, kidney failure and more.

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The EPA mandates that water suppliers such as York Water do this kind of test every three years. Last time, none of the properties were above 15 ppb, Hines said. He said that the 90th percentile of the 50 properties tested in 2013 was 4 ppb. But now that more than five were above 15 ppb, York Water has to test every six months.

The 90th percentile this year was 16 ppb, he said.

Hines said he thinks there's a couple of reasons for the increase. He said two of the properties they tested were "very atypical homes," in that they used only a 10th the water that the average home uses. That means the lines aren't getting flushed out nearly as much.

"The water just sat there" in the lead pipe, which means it's more likely to absorb some of the lead, he said.

Also, when York Water ran its tests it was the hottest September on record. Hines and the EPA both say that warmer water is more likely to pick up lead from the pipes it's running through.

The city of Flint, Michigan, drew a national spotlight to the issue of lead in water over the past year. To put the York-area numbers in perspective with that, some tests by Virginia Tech researchers indicated levels of lead in some Flint homes' water above 5,000 ppb — a high-enough rate that it met the federal definition of toxic waste. Many more homes also turned up in the multiple hundreds or even thousands of parts per billion.

— Sean Cotter covers York City for The York Dispatch. Contact him atscotter@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.

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