Latest Biannual Test Finds Lead in Providence Water

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The most recent Providence Water test found elevated levels of lead in drinking water in some homes and buildings. While drinking water that leaves the treatment plant in Scituate and journeys through the Providence Water distribution system has no detectable levels of lead, service pipes and plumbing fixtures such as faucets, valves, brass pipes, and pipe solder can contain lead.

Since 2007 Providence Water, which supplies about 60 percent of Rhode Island with its drinking water, has routinely exceeded Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Lead and Copper Rule action levels. The EPA requires utilities to test their drinking water once during two annual semesters: January through June and July through December.

To find out if a residence has lead plumbing or public lead service lines, check the online map on the Providence Water website to find out if a home has public lead service lines. It’s important to note that even if the home doesn’t have a lead service line, it may still have a private lead service pipe, or lead in fixtures or in house plumbing.

Providence Water customers in Providence, Cranston, North Providence, Johnston, and East Smithfield can pick up a free lead test kit at the agency’s customer service location, 125 Dupont Drive.

Unlike microbial contamination, boiling water doesn’t reduce lead levels in drinking water.

When the systems of lead pipes that run under cities in the Northeast, such as Providence, were first installed, many people didn’t know about or understand the dangers of lead poisoning. As a result, lead remains a primary connection for water running to many homes. The fix is complicated, and expensive, as copper piping is the replacement.

An abundant supply made lead the metal of choice for plumbing use prior to World War II. In older homes built before 1947, there is a strong probability that some or all of the building’s pipes, fixtures, and soldered plumbing connections consist of lead, brass or lead-based solder.

When standing water is exposed to lead pipes or fixtures and solder for more than a few hours, trace amounts of lead can leach into the standing water. This means the first water drawn from the tap in the morning, or later in the afternoon after returning home from work or school, can contain higher levels of lead.

Lead can cause serious health problems, especially for young children and pregnant women. It can cause damage to the brain and kidneys and can interfere with the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen.

Providence Water is currently offering 3-year, interest-free loans for homeowners to replace private lead service lines. If a homeowner replaces their private side of the service line — from the curb stop/property line to the house — Providence Water will automatically replace the public side — from the water main in the street to the curb stop/property line — of the service line at no cost.

Providence Water also offers these tips people can take to reduce potential lead exposure from household plumbing:

If water hasn’t been used in the building for several hours, people should run water from a cold-water faucet until it gets noticeably colder and then for an additional minute — usually 3-5 minutes total — before using the water for drinking or cooking. This colder water from the tap indicates that standing water in the home’s pipes has been flushed and displaced by water from the water main in the street. The cost of the flushed water is minimal, according to Providence Water, and people can collect the flushed water to use for watering plants or for household cleaning to avoid waste.

For families with babies and young children, formula and other meals should always be prepared with flushed cold water. Using hot water from the tap can cause trace lead amounts to leach from the home’s plumbing into the food source, even after a full flush.

Families should also clean their home’s faucet aerators periodically. Lead from the home’s plumbing could accumulate undetected in the aerator screen and be in contact with water passing through, especially after any repair or replacement of lead-based plumbing or fixtures.

During the past 10 years, Providence Water has spent about $45 million replacing lead services. Today, about one out of every six Providence Water customer homes remains connected to water mains in the street with services made of lead.

In 2012, the Rhode Island Department of Health required the utility to create an expert advisory panel to help it address the public-health concern. Progress is being made, members of the advisory panel told ecoRI News last year.