Investigation: An invisible risk - KLTV.com - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

Investigation: An invisible risk

Map shows the latest lead tests from Texas Comm. on Environmental Quality. The level where action must be taken is 15 parts per billion (ppb).

Investigation: An invisible risk Investigation: An invisible risk
EAST TEXAS (KLTV) -

Editor's note: Lead's odorless and colorless nature makes it hard to detect without specialized testing. The Center for Disease Control says that no level of lead is safe in the bloodstream of a child and could lead to health problems. In this investigative series, we take a closer look at what dangers could be lurking in East Texans' drinking water.

PART 1

Lead's odorless and colorless nature makes it hard for anyone to detect its presence, apart from specialized testing. 

The Center for Disease Control says that no level of lead is safe in the bloodstream of a child and could lead to health problems.  

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set an action level for lead that drinking water should not exceed of 15 parts per billion (ppb).  When water tests come back at that level or higher, water suppliers have to take action. 

Depending on a city's size, water samples have to be submitted to a state certified lab and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

Jacksonville, Lufkin, and Nacogdoches submitted 30 samples in 2015 and all were below the triggering level of 15ppb.  Longview tested 50 samples and 1 was over the action level.  In Tyler, 5 out of 50 returned over the level of 15, ranging from 18 - 30.

Samples are taken at homes selected by the water authority.  The residents submit samples voluntarily or water is taken from outside taps. 

Clayton Nicolardi, Environmental Compliance Engineer for the City of Tyler, says elevated lead levels wouldn't be found at the water treatment plant, but on private property. 

"It takes both the water system and the customer working together to reduce lead and copper levels," said Nicolardi. "Typically lead can come from a lot of household plumbing, it can be found in old fixtures, old plumbing in old construction houses."

Typically, it's an issue for the homeowner to tackle.  However, the homes in Tyler that submitted water samples in September had no idea their levels were elevated. 

Cities are required to mail the test results to residents within 30 days. In Tyler, no notices were sent after the September tests.  

Related: In midst of KLTV 7 investigation, Tyler announces changes for water quality improvement

TCEQ issued a reporting violation to the city for failing to notify residents. 

Nicolardi said elevations at one home do not automatically mean other surrounding homes built in the same year will have similar lead levels. 

"I would say no, and the reason why is one size doesn't fit all. We have locations that are in close proximity to those that had elevated levels," said Nicolardi. "They were on the same street if not the same neighborhood, but there was a difference there."

After an interview with KLTV on February 10, a spokesperson for TWU said results have been sent to all 50 who volunteered to have their water tested in September. 

On February 11, TWU's manager Greg Morgan dispatched crews to some of the homes that tested positive for elevated lead levels. The crews replaced service line pipes leading from the customers' home water meter to the water main. 

Water samples ordered by KLTV at locations on College Avenue, Rowland Road, Kinsey Drive, Ferguson Street, and South Town Road found the majority of those locations tested between 1 and 3 parts per billion. 

CDC Recommendations on Lead

Tyler officials said they are now investigating the cause for the elevated levels and took re-tests at the five locations that tested high in September. The new February tests found that four of the five locations are now below the state action level of 15ppb. 


PART 2

EAST TEXAS (KLTV) - Texas' state database which tracks lead poisoning has not had a significant update since 2011 due to staffing problems, according to the Department of State Health Services.  

Doctors who test the blood of their child patients for lead send those findings to the state, who then sends the data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Without the data, regions could be left unaware if patterns of elevated lead levels in children are occurring.  

Read: EPA says state, city still lag on response to Flint crisis

Federal lawmakers continue to debate over how much aid to send to Flint, Michigan in the wake of its lead epidemic. Compounding the epidemic are allegations that officials failed to notice the crisis soon enough. 

In Texas, the database that could help alert city and county officials to a widespread lead problem is four years behind. 

Christine Mann, Press Officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services said in a written statement:

Our priority is tracking and following up on each elevated test result we receive. A back log in data entry occurred mainly due to staffing issues. A contributing factor to the back log was an increase in the number hard copy, paper reports received. In 2012, Medicaid began allowing point-of-care testing in physicians’ offices. Since that time, it’s estimated the number of paper reports received each year has more than tripled. Those paper reports need to be entered into our system by hand. We’re working to alleviate the data entry issues by hiring additional staff.  

Lead causes the most harm to the youngest in our families.

"If it gets into the body of a very young person, it can affect their development, specifically neurological development," said Dr. Monique Mills, a pediatrician at UT Health. "Children with elevated levels of lead are known to have lower IQ than their age matched peers." 

At UT Health, Dr. Mills said doctors automatically blood test children at 12 and 24 months for lead, but there are few warning signs of a problem. 

"Most children are asymptomatic of their lead exposure until it gets to the point where it's high enough to definitely need treatment," Mills said.  "The treatment plan, called chelation, is to identify and eliminate the exposure and over the course of about 3-12 months, if we have indeed eliminated the exposure, we'll see those levels come down."

Lead can be found in old toys, blinds, paint, items made in countries that don't prohibit its use and water.

Eloise Ghrist, Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) coordinator at Grace Community Church, said the topic of the dangers of lead has come up more often among mothers she knows. 

"I'm not a terribly anxious person, but I have friends that definitely are, and it's funny how becoming a mom can really bring that out," Ghrist said. 
"I do drink a lot of water, we have a filter for our fridge, but that's probably not enough to really filter out the lead and other stuff that might be in there."

Ghrist, the mother of two young children with one due very soon, said she plans to look into taking the precaution of requesting blood testing from a physician. 

"I think it would be good to be more in the know of what's going on, especially because we're raising these little ones and we want them to be as healthy as possible,"   Ghrist said. 

Two of the ways the government tracks the presence of lead is through drinking water samples and blood test results. 
According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) database, the most recent water samples taken in major East Texas cities show low levels of lead were detected in: 27% of Jacksonville samples; 37% of Longview samples; 27% of Lufkin samples; 72% of Tyler samples; and 3% of samples in Nacogdoches.  The majority of those detections were below the level set by TCEQ in which a water supplier has to take corrective action. 

Lufkin city manager Keith Wright said lead levels reflect the erosion of lead from service lines installed by developers and homeowners prior to July of 1988. "The lead erodes from the solder over time and the [City of Lufkin] adds ortho-phosphate to coat the solder to sequester the lead."

Wright said though Lufkin's lead results were well below the maximum contaminant level, the city continues to monitor the levels. 

Dr. Mills said those concerned that their children may be exposed to lead can request that a physician perform the test.

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