Tuesday, April 12, 2016

How safe is Spokane’s water supply from lead poisoning?

Posted By on Tue, Apr 12, 2016 at 11:13 AM

In last week’s paper, we took a look at how Washington could soon be required to begin testing more kids receiving Medicaid for lead exposure. It’s an issue that looms large as the country has watched a major public health crisis unfold in Flint, Michigan, where water has become undrinkable due to lead contamination.

The crisis has highlighted that Flint isn’t the only community facing this problem, and that some school districts have even higher levels of lead in their water.

So how is Spokane doing?

“We are in very good shape,” says Marlene Feist, city utilities spokeswoman.

According to Feist, the city has steadily replaced lead pipes used to deliver water. Currently, there are only about 500 homes serviced with lead pipe, she says, and the city will replace those if the customers request it.  

The most recent testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of Spokane's water quality, conducted in 2012, didn’t reveal Flint-level problems. The tests found that 90 percent of at-risk homes, which had either lead or lead-soldered pipes, had lead levels below those that would require the city to take action.

“We are so fortunate to have the aquifer we have,” adds Feist, referencing the the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, which provides the region with water that is unlikely to corrode pipes, unlike the situation in Flint. 

Spokane public schools gets most of their water from the city, according to Tim Wood, the district’s maintenance manager. In an email, he writes that “to the best of our knowledge” the water is distributed with either copper or galvanized piping, which are steel pipes covered with a protective layer of zinc.

Anna Halloran, epidemiologist with the Spokane Regional Health District, says that in places like Spokane older housing with lead-based paint and contaminated soil are the most likely culprits for exposure. In older housing, she says, when lead-based paint is disturbed it can create dust that can be inhaled.

The Washington State Department of Health has released a map showing that places like Spokane, because of its older housing stock and levels of poverty, is at an elevated risk for lead poisoning compared to other parts of the state. However, department spokesman David Johnson notes in an email that the "lead exposure risk map displays the risk to lead exposure by census tract; it does not determine personal risk."
click to enlarge A map from the Washington Department of Health shows that Spokane is at an elevated risk of lead exposure. - DOH
A map from the Washington Department of Health shows that Spokane is at an elevated risk of lead exposure.

But how bad is actual lead exposure in Spokane? Halloran says that children on Medicaid should be tested. Currently, she says a targeted approach is used for testing children, which she says leaves an incomplete picture.

“Unfortunately,” she says. “We don’t have those numbers.”

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