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Lead Violations Impact Vulnerable NC Communities

Rachel Velez

Rachel Velez, guest author

While many are aware of the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan, public health issues relating to lead and copper contamination may be closer to home than you think. Clean Water for North Carolina recently obtained a dataset from the North Carolina Public Water Supply section detailing almost 1,000 lead and copper violations over the past four years. With an estimated ¾’s of North Carolinians accessing their drinking water from public water systems, we wanted to use this data to discover if lead and copper exposure disproportionately affects certain communities throughout our state.

One way to determine if certain communities are at a greater risk is by looking at the socioeconomic statuses of the North Carolina counties in which the violations have been reported. The N.C. Department of Commerce assigns counties to Tier 1, 2, or 3 designations based on their economic well-being, with Tier 1 counties being the most economically distressed and Tier 3 counties the least. According to the data, the majority of LCR violations occur in Tier 2 counties, while Tier 1 counties reported the least LCR violations. This trend is both interesting and surprising, as poor infrastructure and maintenance is oftentimes most characteristic of lower-income communities.
Tiers & LCR violations
While regions recognized as the most economically distressed do not appear to be disproportionately affected on the county scale, public water systems servicing communities predominately home to lower income residents, specifically mobile home parks, reported the majority of LCR violations across the board. Approximately 30% of the total 879 LCR violations over the past four years were reported in mobile home communities, with no specific pattern regarding county tier designation. Even more concerning, over 50% of the violating water systems did not provide a Lead Consumer Notice form to the mobile home residents, which defines key terms, provides sampling results, and explains health threats associated with exposure.

Homestead MHP

A residence in Homestead Mobile Home Park, Orange County. The water system violated the LCR on 1/1/2015 through not providing its residents with a Lead Consumer Notice form — a public education requirement for residents exposed to lead and copper in their drinking water.

Water systems serving educational institutions, including schools and daycares account for about 16% of the total LCR violations over the past four years. Approximately 30% of these violations were reported in Tier 1 counties, primarily in southern Columbus county. Greenglo Daycare Center located in Vance County reported the most violations among all public water systems serving educational institutions, with 13 violations stemming from 2013, five of which have yet to be returned to compliance. In fact, Greenglo ranked third in number of violations among any other water system described in the report, behind Sixty-Eight Place at Oak Ridge shopping center (14 violations) and Cedar Lake Condos (17 violations).

Threats to our nation’s public health are not spread homogeneously across the country, and the same goes for when looking at lead and copper violations across North Carolina. To stay informed on the quality of public drinking water sources, consumers can contact their providers and ask about lead sampling dates and results, and request Lead Consumer Notice forms mentioned above. Private well users can also be at risk of lead in drinking water. Well users may contact their local health department for information on how to test for lead, or contact Clean Water for NC at (Read on for more background on the Lead & Copper Rule).

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is commissioned to protect both the environment and human health from naturally-occurring and man-made contaminants, including lead and copper. Acting under the umbrella of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the lead and copper rule (LCR) was passed by the EPA in 1991 to minimize public health risks associated with lead and copper contamination. This legislation sets the standards for public water systems and requires these service providers to sample and monitor the action levels – the level of contaminant indicating required monitoring, treatment, and public education – of their water sources. In North Carolina, the agency responsible for enforcing the LCR is the North Carolina Public Water Supply section, which has been designated state-level authority by the EPA to regulate the state’s public water systems. However, as stated above, hundreds of water systems throughout the state have been, or currently are, in violation of the Lead and Copper Rule.

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