HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

When Unsafe Drinking Water Hits Home

Yesterday morning I brewed some tea, and then saw a newspaper story revealing that my town's water supply "contained high levels of lead," nearly "six times the national standard." Letters of warning has been sent out to residents, but I had not received mine - it came at noon.

As an environmental lawyer with knowledge about lead standards, I knew that lead is toxic over long priods, not just from limited morning teas. And I have always felt that the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) has an adequate public notice section ("§141.85 Public education requirements") which requires customer notification to be "timely," and not more than 30 days. But I still resented being told yesterday about a problem discovered on August 30th. As the person ingesting the lead, I could not figure out why the chief water plant operator could not have picked up the phone and called the local newspaper the day he saw the test results. But the law did not require it - he just needed to provide the written notice within 30 days. "I did not try to drag it out" he said, "we're a small plant, we don't have great staffing, but I did it as fast as I could."

(I also learned that the water tanks were painted with lead based paint. As the plant operator candidly admitted, "I never thought they would put lead inside a tank.")

From a water consumer's standpoint, the SDWA regulations can be improved by simply adding a requirement for media announcements of standard violations. That may not reach everyone, and dissemination depends on outlets' decisions to carry the story. But it would have improved the likelihood that I would not have been drinking lead tainted tea for the past 25 days.


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