What may be the first positive test for elevated lead in a person’s urine has surfaced in northeast Fresno as residents stew over the pace of the city’s investigation into the corrosion of galvanized plumbing in households.
The bigger question to the residents is whether their water is safe to drink.
Holly Carter, a spokeswoman for Fresno Citizens for Clean Water, said in a press release Wednesday that one resident has become the first to “test positive for lead poisoning after a decade of drinking contaminated water.” Carter said she expects more positive tests to follow as more people get tested for the toxic heavy metal.
Fresno County Health Department officials, however, are frustrated by the lack of detail in the report received Tuesday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and forwarded to them soon after. All they know at this point is that an email was sent to the EPA from a resident about a test that showed a “slightly elevated” level of lead in the patient’s urine sample. Beyond that, the county officials know nothing about the resident, the specific level of lead in the urine, or other information that would allow them to take meaningful action or follow up with the patient.
David Pomaville, the county’s director of public health, said that blood testing – not urine testing – is the standard test for diagnosing lead exposure or poisoning. He said Wednesday that the county takes lead exposure seriously because of the health risks that the metal poses to the nervous systems of people, especially children.
And he’s also concerned about a premature hue and cry about “lead poisoning” based only on a urine test.
We evaluate lead exposures based on concentrations of lead in the blood, not urine. That’s the standard practice.
David Pomaville, Fresno County director of public health
“We evaluate lead exposures based on concentrations of lead in the blood, not urine. That’s the standard practice,” Pomaville said. “If a physician believes there has been exposure to lead in the environment, a blood lead test is the typical testing tool that is used.”
County public health nurse Mary Morrisson added that “urine testing is not used for diagnostic purposes for lead poisoning.”
Pomaville said that residents who are concerned about lead exposure need to contact their doctor for a blood test. Lab results from blood lead tests automatically go to a state database and counties are notified on a quarterly basis. But if a test result comes back above a threshold of 45 parts per billion, the state forwards it to the county within two weeks, Pomaville said, for follow-up to determine the specific source of the exposure.
On Wednesday afternoon, the city issued a statement acknowledging that Fresno water officials are aware of the report to the EPA. The EPA office in San Francisco reportedly received an email about the positive test on Tuesday and notified the State Water Resources Control Board, which in turn alerted the city as well as the county health department. “Federal, state, city and county officials were in communication about the report within one hour of the resident submitting the communication to the EPA,” according to the city’s statement.
Water quality in northeast Fresno has become a serious concern since January, when a growing number of complaints on social media about discolored water in residents’ homes came to the city’s attention. From January through late July, about 800 reports were made by residents to the city’s Public Utilities Department complaining about discoloration in the water coming from their faucets. The vast majority of those reports came from the 93710, 93720 and 93730 ZIP codes in northeast Fresno.
But some complaints about discolored water in the area date as far back as 2004 – about the time that the city’s Northeast Surface Water Treatment Facility became operational. That plant takes water from the Enterprise Canal, disinfects it and treats it with chemicals to reduce its corrosive potential to household plumbing. The water is also blended with pumped well water.
The prevalent opinion of group members is that the pipes in their homes have been damaged by the city’s mismanagement of the chemical mix in the northeast Fresno municipal water supply.
Holly Carter, Fresno Citizens for Clean Water
In her statement, Carter said most of the residents in her organization believe that “the pipes in their homes have been damaged by the city’s mismanagement of the chemical mix in the northeast Fresno municipal water supply.”
The city’s water division is working with the State Water Resources Control Board to determine what’s causing the problems, which largely appear to be related to corrosion of galvanized iron pipes or lead-containing fixtures within homes in the area served by the surface water treatment plant.
Through the first seven months of this year, the city has collected water samples at least once from nearly 300 homes that have reported discoloration in the water. Of those, testing indicated that 51 homes had water with lead at concentrations at or above 15 parts per billion – the level established by the EPA at which corrective action must be taken. As the city has adjusted its corrosion treatment of treated canal water and pumped groundwater, retesting showed that lead levels were reduced to below the action level or to non-detectable levels in 10 of those homes.
City spokesman Mark Standriff said water officials cannot tell from the email to the EPA whether the urine test is from a resident whose home has already been tested by the city and shown results above the action level. “If we had that information, we could easily pull the test results,” he said.
Standriff said the city will be taking its directions from the state water board and the county health department in responding to residents’ complaints. “We’re already doing everything possible, and will continue to do so, to understand how this discolored water situation is happening and keep making moves to pull those numbers back,” he said.
Kassy Chauhan, a senior engineer with the drinking water division of the State Water Resources Control Board, said continuing test results show that “it appears that the city is taking steps in the right direction to correct the problem” with its water-treatment adjustments.
The state’s priority, Chauhan added, is for the city to investigate homes where kitchen faucets – the fixtures most likely to be used for drinking water – show lead in excess of the EPA action level, and then take the necessary steps to bring that water below the action level. Of more than 800 fixtures in homes where water has been sampled and tested, the city reports that 77 tested for lead above the EPA threshold – including six kitchen sinks. Two of those kitchen sinks have since dropped below the lead threshold after being retested.
For homes where water is discolored or lead has shown up in test results, the recommendation from the city, state and federal water and health officials is for residents to turn on the tap and flush the faucets for several minutes to clear any discolored water that has settled in the pipes.