Elevated levels of lead have been recorded in the tap water of some Emigration Canyon homes, prompting the area’s water provider to alert its customers and explore the cause and extent of the contamination.
The problem, which is not considered an emergency, was discovered last month when tests results were returned on samples taken from 10 homes in the tony mountain neighborhood east of Salt Lake City, according to Marie Owens, director of the Utah Division of Drinking Water. Three of the samples taken Sept. 23 showed lead levels at or above the federal standard of 15 parts per billion, triggering a mandatory course of action that includes notification to all customers served by the Emigration Improvement District, or EID.
“If more than 10% of the samples you take from customer taps are above 15 [parts per billion for lead] you need to take action and look at corrosivity of the water,” Owens said. “The first thing we required them to do was let everyone know.”
She emphasized that there is no safe level for lead, a heavy metal that causes severe neurological problems and accumulates in tissues in the body. Children are particularly vulnerable. Accordingly, the 15 ppb limit is not a health-based standard but rather a threshold that triggers mandatory actions if it is breached. In the aftermath of the Flint, Mich., lead crisis, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is now poised to tighten standard to 10 ppb and strengthen requirements for mitigating lead hazards.
As a result of its high lead readings, the EID must increase the frequency of testing from every three years to six months, and double the sample size from 10 to 20 homes, in addition to specific steps to pinpoint the source of the lead and mitigate it if necessary.
Almost none of that information appears in the Oct. 25 notification district officials sent to its water customers disclosing the elevated lead. Since then, however, two of the three homes that tested high were retested, while the third is awaiting retesting, according to the EID general manager Eric Hawkes. The two came back under the 15 ppb threshold.
“We have tested the water sources, and they have come back nondetect for lead,” Hawkes said. “It is really a homeowner issue where they had plumbing in their homes that contains lead.”
The district provides water to 306 homes, more than half the canyon’s residences. The rest are on private water systems.
The Oct. 25 letter was actually a template provided by state regulators, providing little more than boilerplate information on lead and copper contamination and the steps water users everywhere should take to minimize exposure to these metals in their drinking water.
“I hesitated sending the letter out before we had all the information," Hawkes said, “but that is the protocol.”
The tap water sampling was conducted by the homeowners themselves. Samples were supposed to be pulled from taps that get regular use, but had not been used for the six hours before the sample being taken. Hawkes suspects the high readings came from samples that were not properly collected.
“If a tap hasn’t been used, it will have higher levels because it hasn’t been flushed,” Hawkes said. “It gives a false positive.”
The district’s testing program targeted canyon homes built in the 1980s, an era when lead was commonly used in pipe solder, according to Hawkes. Steve Denkers’ 33-year-old home in Emigration Oaks was among those whose first sample came back high. He acknowledged that he mistakenly selected a bathroom tap that hadn’t been used in a few weeks. His resample came back at 8 ppb for lead, nearly half the previous reading.
Every year, a few Utah water providers get in trouble with the lead standard, usually because of contamination that occurs inside pipes, according to Owens. Ironically, the purity of many communities' water can lead to contamination. Water devoid of suspended elements tend to draw metals from whatever is around it.
“Typically, the cleaner the water, the more corrosive it is,” Owens said. “In Utah, we are good at collecting snowmelt and making it drinking water. That snowmelt has not had enough time to pick up minerals. Sometimes there are consequences to the extremely pristine water we have in our state.”
To lower your risk of lead exposure, drink and cook with water from the cold tap only; let the water run for 30 seconds, longer if the tap hasn’t been used for an extended period, before using it; install a filter; frequently clean the aerator screens on taps; use lead-free materials and piping in remodels.