Expert Commentary

Lead in drinking water: Key facts and reporting tips

For reporters new to the topic, journalist Anna Clark cleared up some common misconceptions about lead in drinking water.


In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan changed its water supply, switching from Lake Huron water piped in from Detroit to its own Flint River. The river water wasn’t properly treated, and so it corroded the city’s lead pipes, carrying the toxic metal through the community’s faucets. Thousands of children were poisoned, and twelve people died of Legionnaires’ disease, which may have been connected to the change in water supply.

Anna Clark was working as a journalist in Detroit as the water crisis in Flint came to a head in 2015. She began covering the story that fall and wrote a book about the crisis, “The Poisoned City,” published in 2018. It’s a story about water, but it’s also a story about infrastructure, disinvestment from American cities, the crisis in local news and racial inequality.

It’s a very rich place to be, to be reporting from this intersection of built environment, natural environment and human well-being. I think it’s pretty powerful,” Clark said in a recent phone call with Journalist’s Resource.

The story is rich because it crosses beats, but it’s also complicated because of this, and complicated in its own right.

“It’s in some ways a technically challenging story,” Clark said. “Reporting on this myself, there was a lot I had to learn about the safe drinking water law, how water testing works, what corrosion control is, the different wording for parts of a drinking water system.”

“It can be harder to enter into something like that, especially at a time when people are telling you contradictory information. So you’re trying to catch up on material that is probably new to you, and you’re being told different things by different people, which makes it even more obfuscating.”

For reporters new to the topic, Clark cleared up some common misconceptions about lead in drinking water.

What to know: Even when water passes lead testing standards, it might not be safe to drink.

Reporting tips: “There’s a lot of questions reporters should ask about that. One is questioning how that water is sampled and how many samples they actually collected. Communities as large as Chicago can get by on 50 samples every three years. Completely weird, and yet legal. Still they’re able to declare that according to what we did we’re ‘safe,’” Clark said, referencing the fact that Illinois EPA regulations require Chicago’s water management department to test only 50 sites for contamination city-wide every three years  in a metropolis that serves over 5 million residents.

She added that the Lead and Copper Rule – a federal regulation that sets national limits for the concentrations of these metals in public drinking water – has a loophole that should spark reporters’ scrutiny. According to the rule, while 90 percent of a community’s water samples must have less than 15 parts per billion of lead, 10 percent can have any amount of lead in them. (Clark noted that this rule doesn’t apply if there are stricter state standards in place, though this is rare.)

“Declaring that the water meets all federal regulations doesn’t mean that any individual home is safe,” she said. “It also doesn’t necessarily account for testing in multifamily housing, or schools, or childcare centers.”

Only seven states — California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and Virginia — and the District of Columbia require testing in schools (the requirements as to which types of schools — e.g., public, private, charters — must be tested vary by state). This is in spite of the fact that children are most affected by lead exposure, and schools are often older buildings in need of lead service line replacements, according to Clark.

Looking beyond schools, Clark recommended investigating lead levels everywhere people live, including hospitals, jails, prisons, juvenile detention centers and immigrant detention centers.

She also recommended reporters look at lead exposure issues in rural areas. “Cities have gotten a lot of attention, but rural areas, in some ways, they have completely different rules,” Clark said. “Often they don’t have requirements to test and add corrosion control to water at all, even though they also have very old pipes. Often the samples are only required to be tested very rarely. I think that puts people at risk.”

What to know: Positive test results for lead don’t necessarily mean that an entire community is drinking tainted water.

“Getting one sample from one place that shows an outrageous amount of lead doesn’t necessarily mean everybody in the entire community is drinking toxic water,” she said. “The way lead works — and this is why it is challenging — is that it can be erratic. Its release can be very erratic. And this is one reason why I would love to see more consistent, more controlled water testing requirements, both at the state level and at the federal level.”

What to know: The methods used to test water can have drastic impacts on the results.

For example, in Flint, residents were instructed to flush their pipes for five minutes before collecting a sample, which Clark said can result in lower-than-usual lead levels.

Reporting tips: Clark recommended reporters ask for a copy of the instructions issued to the community for collecting water samples.

Digging into the results, too, can be revelatory. Clark suggested mapping the results of the tests with an eye toward the age of the homes and communities that provided the samples. 1986 is the key year to keep in mind, she said, because that’s when Congress enacted the Safe Water Drinking Act Amendments of 1986, which banned the use of lead pipes. Also, Clark suggested checking whose homes are being tested. The Chicago Tribune discovered that in Chicago, many of the homes where water was sampled for lead testing between 2010 and 2013 belonged to current or former employees of the water department.

Clark also noted that reporters should keep in mind that EPA guidelines recommend testing in areas that are most likely to have lead problems. “A lot of people aren’t doing this, and there really hasn’t been a lot of pushback when they haven’t,” she said.

Additionally, areas with elevated water lead levels are supposed to be re-tested in the next round of required testing. Is this happening? Clark suggested reporters ask.

Reporters who have the resources to do so might consider doing their own independent testing – with guidance from a scientist with expertise in the subject, Clark said.

What to know: Lead exposure has cumulative effects, especially in children.

We don’t exist in silos, so we might be exposed to lead through water. We might also be exposed to lead through paint and through soil.”

Reporting tip: “Urban reporting and environmental reporting are often the same thing,” she added in a follow-up email. “Cities are ecosystems. It would be great to see people on those beats do more co-reporting, and for reporters who specialize in each to have some training and experience in the other. That could be a way to tell better, truer stories.”

What to know: Though low levels of lead in the blood might be common, they are not natural (normal) or safe.

Clark cited the pioneering work of scientist Clair Patterson, who stressed the importance of not mistaking what is common for what is safe with respect to blood lead levels. “People would say the amount of lead in this child’s body is no different than all these children’s bodies, and he was kind of making the case that just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s normal,” Clark said. “His research was all about how much lead have humans put into the environment and created exposure opportunities.”

What to know: It’s not enough to say lead contamination in one community is “better” or “worse” than it is in another.

I see a lot of people … use the phrase ‘worse than Flint’ — they use Flint as a comparison point,” she said. “I get what reporters are trying to do, they’re trying to provide context to their readers, they’re trying to relate whatever lead issue’s going on in their community with a story that their readers might be familiar with. But … I’d just be a little careful of that, because comparisons like that can be slippery. What’s ‘worse’? What does that mean?”

What to know: It’s important to pinpoint the sources of lead contamination.

Though many American communities were built with lead plumbing infrastructure, Clark said less is known about the specific locations of these pipes. This makes it difficult to understand the risk posed to the community and take action to replace the plumbing.

Clark suggested this is a key thread for journalists to follow. Try mapping the lead plumbing in your community. It’s an important consumer story, Clark said, as well as a story that might motivate public policy action – i.e., replacing lead-based infrastructure.

What to know: Regulatory bodies might not have the funding or capacity to monitor the quality of drinking water. And lead prevention programs don’t always address lead in drinking water – they often focus on lead paint.

“In Michigan, our Department of Environmental Quality had been defunded for years,” she said. “They lost a lot of staffing and resources, and yet had a huge number of increasingly complex regulatory responsibilities.”

Reporting tip: Clark recommended that journalists report on the people who have regulatory oversight: “Look at the people who have the responsibility for regulating this. Are they resourced enough to do it well? What are their priorities? Is their environmental department truly acting for the public good or are they acting more as business boosters and so on?”

Ask how lead prevention programs measure their success. And find out what resources they offer for health recovery, education and support?

What to know: Though there’s plenty of work to be done, not all stories about lead are stories of despair.

Reporting tip: “I’d love to see reporters covering people who are trying to do things right,” Clark said. “Whether that’s community activists or public officials or people who are creating blueprints for safer and healthier communities and inclusive communities — recognizing that infrastructure can repeat the inequalities and injustices of our past in a very literal way, or it can work for the opposite.”

A clear opportunity for a solutions story, Clark said, is highlighting why and how communities have gotten rid of their lead-based infrastructure.

What to know: It’s wrong to frame lead stories with a pat hero/victim narrative.

It’s not accurate to tell a story, at least in Flint, where the community was poor and victimized and restless and unruly and suddenly these outsiders came in and saved them,” she said.

“I think that also can be dangerously misleading for other communities, who might have otherwise had much to learn from a lot of the really extraordinary community organizing tactics that happened in Flint.”

Reporting tips: Tell the stories of the people who contributed to lead mitigation efforts, but put them in context.

“Remember that when you’re writing about communities, it’s never about one person. … I think it’s also worth interrogating a little bit about who we see as heroes and who we don’t see as heroes. … I think what’s frustrating about Flint is this is a community that had been dismissed for so long. Everything they’d been saying, the questions they had, the independent research they were doing that was totally valid. And as journalists we risk repeating those very same mistakes in the narrative we tell.”

She pointed out the racial dynamic at play here, too. She cited the example of Flint, where activists began getting attention after putting forward white, married mothers as spokespeople for the cause.

Clark also noted that diverse sourcing helps to build community trust and results in a broader range of story leads.

What to know: Lead service lines aren’t entirely public utilities.

“One of the big issues in a lot of communities is that homeowners are expected to be responsible for the part of the line that’s under their property, while the city or county or whoever is responsible for [the] other half,” she said. “This has presented a lot of challenges for people who are trying to find ways to fund replacing them.”

What to know: Partial line replacements – where a portion of lead plumbing, rather than the entire system, is replaced — aren’t a feasible strategy for lead mitigation. They actually increase contamination.

“Partial line replacements are scientifically found to cause a surge in lead, because you’re shaking up the pipe and the part of the lead pipe that remains will kind of push out more of this toxin into your tap water,” she explained.

Reporting tip: Clark recommended posing tough questions to people who advocate for partial line replacements and citing research that counters notions that this strategy works to mitigate lead exposure.

What to know: Lead isn’t the only water issue worth looking at.

“One of the other big issues in Flint was, of course, the Legionnaires’ outbreak,” she said. “I think bringing more light to that story… would be very interesting. … Legionnaires’ disease as an environmental risk that’s connected with water.”

For more research on lead, we’ve gathered scholarship on lead poisoning. We’ve also written about airplanes as a source of lead pollution and connections between early lead exposure and behavioral problems in teens.

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