The presence of lead in tap water has been a highly-publicized issue in places like Flint, Michigan and Sebring, Ohio. Locally, Highland County residents enjoy safe water from the sources, but older homes with aged plumbing are advised to follow a simple rule to make sure water stays safe after it travels through their pipes.
“Flush, flush, flush,” says Jason Bernard, supervisor of Hillsboro’s water treatment plant. Allowing water to run for a few seconds through the tap – and a little longer if the tap hasn’t been used in a few hours – flushes lines and helps ensure that contaminants aren’t present when users fill their glasses, water pitchers or coffee carafes.
An Associated Press analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data this month found that nearly 1,400 water systems serving 3.6 million Americans exceeded the federal lead standard at least once between Jan. 1, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2015. The affected systems are large and small, public and private, and include 278 systems that are owned and operated by schools and day care centers in 41 states.
Just a handful of public drinking water suppliers in Ohio have gone over the federal limit for lead during the past three years. All are fairly small, with the majority providing water to fewer than 500 customers.
While no amount of lead exposure is considered safe, the rule calls for water systems to keep levels below 15 parts per billion (ppb). All water suppliers in Highland County are well below those levels, according to data contained in an Associated Press spreadsheet, with periodic measurements taken at homes ranging from zero to 2.9 ppb.
The most recent samples taken at the 20 biggest municipal systems in the state showed that seven had small amounts of lead — still below the federal limit. They included water systems in Cincinnati, Akron and Youngstown.
Lead contamination is usually not a problem caused by the source of tap water. Instead, lead is gathered through old lines and home plumbing that has been around for decades in many cases. Officials with water systems in Hillsboro, Greenfield, Lynchburg and Leesburg, as well as the Highland County Water Company, all conduct required tests from samples collected at homes they serve.
When tests occasionally show higher than usual levels of lead, more tests are conducted. For example, Leesburg’s water quality report from 2014 states that because of some higher levels from some homes during a series of tests, the homes were re-tested, and lead was not detected in further follow-up samples collected at 20 Leesburg homes.
To protect against lead and other corrosives, Hillsboro and most other systems add phosphate to the water, which helps line the pipes and provides a protective barrier against lead, copper and other contaminants.
Hillsboro’s water flows from creeks and reservoirs to the water station and then to the water towers before making its way to homes and businesses. Along with home testing, the water towers are required to be periodically inspected.
Safety and Service Director Todd Wilkin said this week that in years past, the towers had to be drained for the inspection to take place, costing thousands of gallons of water. But now, technology allows scuba divers or even robots to perform the inspections, saving water and costs.
Lead and copper testing from home taps is required every three years, said Bernard, and this year Hillsboro is conducting its required tests. Tests must be conducted in a random sampling of homes. Residents selected to perform he tests are provided a detailed list of instructions.
“Collect samples from a tap that has not been used for at least 6 hours,” the form instructs. “Be sure to use a kitchen or bathroom cold water tap that has been used for drinking water consumption in the past few weeks.”
Residents conducting the tests are asked to fill out a short form describing the time and date the test was gathered, the location of the tap from where the sample came, and whether the sample was collected from a tap connected to a water softener.
Communities like Hillsboro flush water lines twice a year through fire hydrants to clear sediment. Just as that process helps keep water safe, Bernard says the same principle applies at taps in homes.
“Let the water run a while,” he said, “especially if it hasn’t been used for a while.”
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary. The Associated Press contributed to this story.