Omaha’s tap water meets federal standards for lead and has for years, officials say — but such assurances aren’t enough for one local health organization, given the widespread lead contamination in Flint, Michigan.
The Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance will begin sampling tap water for lead this month, said Kara Eastman, chief executive officer. Testing, to be done in collaboration with Metropolitan Utilities District, will be at those homes where lead pipes may be in use.
“We felt that despite the fact that MUD has assured the community that water is healthy in homes, we should make sure,” Eastman said.
The alliance, an outgrowth of a $309 million federal cleanup of lead-contaminated Omaha yards, examines about 300 homes annually for environmental problems. Homes selected for testing come from referrals by agencies that contract with the alliance, typically hospitals and public health clinics.
Based on the alliance’s agreement with MUD, the organization will test only in those homes most likely to have lead pipes, Eastman said. The threshold for testing will be any home built before 1960, according to MUD.
Omaha’s tap water has consistently met federal drinking water standards for lead since 1992, when testing began, said MUD spokeswoman Tracey Christensen.
Howard Isaacs, Nebraska’s top drinking water regulator, said tap water in Omaha has tested well enough that it requires checking only every three years.
The next round of tests is scheduled later this year. Residents at 50 homes — 25 with lead pipes and 25 served by copper pipes with lead solder — will collect tap water for MUD, which then ships the samples to the state for testing.
Additionally, MUD tests its own water monthly for lead — both the raw water coming into treatment plants and the finished water leaving the plants. None of those tests has detected lead, according to the utility.
Lead contamination of drinking water typically occurs in the final stretch of pipe that water travels to reach a home — that segment from the utility’s main to the customer’s faucet. This service line is owned by the homeowner, and prior to 1950, many such service lines were made from lead.
MUD records indicate that 15,428 of its 207,026 customers may have lead or partial lead service lines, Christensen said. Another 19,109 customers are served by lines made of unknown materials. The remaining customers have service lines most likely made of copper.
The key to water quality in any community is the treatment process. One of the ways in which officials apparently failed the people of Flint was in not following industry standards when it began pulling water from the Flint River.
Officials failed to add anti-corrosion chemicals to the river water, which allowed it to eat away at the protective coating that had built up inside the pipes. This in turn allowed lead to leach into the water.
The number of children testing high for lead in their bodies has nearly doubled in Flint since April 2014, when the city began using river water.
Michigan officials have declared a state of emergency, and President Barack Obama designated Flint a federal disaster area.
MUD does treat its water to reduce corrosiveness.
The easiest way for homeowners to see if that process is working, according to MUD, is to look at the lip of their faucets. That scaling and buildup around the mouth of the faucet also coats the interior of pipes and forms a protective barrier between the pipe and the water itself.
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