4 percent of city water samples contain elevated lead levels

Nearly 4 percent of samples in a Baltimore water quality analysis contained elevated lead levels.

Nearly 4 percent of samples taken for a Baltimore water-quality analysis contained unacceptable levels of lead, according to a report released Monday by the city.

Two out of 52 samples contained lead at levels higher than 15 parts per billion, considered the "action level." The samples were collected in 2015, and the elevated lead levels were found in homes in East Baltimore and North Baltimore, officials said.

The last time the city Department of Public Works tested the water system for lead, in 2012, no samples surpassed that level. Earlier data were not immediately available.

The two samples that surpassed the action level contained lead at concentrations of 35 and 27 parts per billion, said Jeff Raymond, a spokesman for the city public works department.

Dr. Ana Navas-Acien, a physician-epidemiologist in environmental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the elevated lead levels are a health concern. She suggested residents in those homes be tested for lead levels in their blood — particularly any children.

But the results fall below a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency threshold requiring broader action. If lead concentrations exceed the action level in more than 10 percent of samples, water agencies must take actions to reduce corrosion in pipes, according to the EPA.

The report noted the lead contamination of municipal water in Flint, Mich., "has reminded all Americans of the importance of maintaining clean, healthful water." In that city, corrosive water from the Flint River leached lead from aging pipes into the drinking water.

"Baltimore is fortunate in that we have excellent source waters and that our water mains are not made of lead," said Rudy S. Chow, city public works director. "We carefully treat our water in a manner to both inhibit corrosion and contamination."

Chow said Baltimore "ranks among the best localities in the nation for water taste and purity."

The samples were taken from homes across the city considered "high risk" for poor water quality, Raymond said. Residents whose homes were sampled are instructed to fill the testing bottles first thing in the morning, when water has been sitting in pipes for the longest time, so the results are considered a worst-case scenario, he said.

Based on the findings, public works officials encouraged those residents to let water run cold before using it or drinking it, to ensure that water that has been sitting in pipes is flushed out. They are also encouraged to use cold water for cooking and preparing baby formula because lead dissolves more easily into hot water.

A more aggressive recommended remedy is finding and replacing lead solder used to connect copper pipes.

Jane Barrett, director of the environmental law clinic at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, said that while the results fall below the EPA's level of concern, they emphasize the importance of monitoring.

"Given the sensitivity to the issue and the age of the Baltimore City infrastructure, it is something you want to keep an eye on and keep watching," she said.

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