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April 1, 1998

Contact: Cathy DelliCarpini (718/595-6600)

City Making Progress Against Lead in Drinking Water

In Floral Park today, New York City Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Joel A. Miele Sr., P.E. joined New York State Consumer Protection Board Chairman and Executive Director Timothy S. Carey, and Waterbill Watchdogs President Ray Howell in a ceremony marking an agreement to disperse more than $7 million in refunds to Jamaica Water Supply's former customers in Queens and Nassau.

New York City water is lead-free when it is delivered from the City's upstate reservoir system, but water can absorb lead from solder, fixtures and pipes found in the plumbing of some buildings. In 1991, new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations lowered the protective standard for tap water from 50 parts per billion (ppb) of lead to 15 ppb. In 1992, the City, in response to these stricter standards instituted a corrosion control program to reduce lead levels at the tap, mounted a massive public education campaign and began offering free water testing for lead.

New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Joel A. Miele Sr., P.E., said, "The City's corrosion control program is designed to reduce lead levels in pipes and plumbing throughout the City. Because lead can pose a health threat, especially to small children, residents need to find out if they have lead in their water and take the proper precautions."

Lead can build up in the body and cause damage to the brain, red blood cells and kidneys. Small children and developing fetuses are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead contamination. In New York City, the major source of lead for children is paint in older buildings, but lead is also found in the air, soil and glazed pottery. The sale of lead-based paint has been illegal in New York City since 1975. According to the EPA, only 10 – 20 per cent of a person's total exposure to lead is likely to come from drinking water, but this can be a factor in lead-related illness.

As part of the EPA Lead and Copper Rule requirements, the City must test the tap water of at least 100 homes deemed at risk of having high lead levels because of lead service lines or pipes soldered with lead. The city, most recently, tested these "worst case" homes throughout the five boroughs between July and December 1997 and found the lead level at the 90th percentile to be 24 ppb. This means that 10 percent of the homes in the group had 24 ppb or more of lead in their water. That is a significant improvement from the 1992 pre-corrosion control program level of 47 ppb. Commissioner Miele noted that, "The test results clearly show that the corrosion control program is bringing lead levels down. We've made excellent progress and are encouraged by the results."

In its effort to reduce lead levels, in October 1992, the City began adding small amounts of orthophosphate, a corrosion inhibitor to its water supply — more than five years earlier than the EPA January 1, 1997 deadline for implementation of corrosion control programs by large U.S. water suppliers. Orthophosphate forms a micro-thin protective coating on the inside of every pipe connected to the City's water system and acts as a barrier that keeps lead in plumbing from dissolving into the water.

Orthophosphates have been approved for use in New York City's water by the EPA, the New York State Department of Health, and NSF International, an independent, non-profit research organization designated by the EPA to certify all drinking water additives. Orthophosphate has been used by more than 50 cities, including Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New Orleans, for the same purpose.

The City is mailing informational pamphlets to water customers that encourages them to take advantage of DEP's free lead in water testing program. It also instructs readers how to reduce exposure to lead in tap water and how to obtain information about blood tests for children from the New York City Department of Health (NYCDOH). The most effective method to reduce lead in tap water is to run the water for one minute before using it for cooking or drinking when the faucet has been shut off for more than six hours. This will replace the water that has been sitting in the pipes with fresh water. The pamphlet also tells consumers never to use hot water from the tap for cooking, drinking or to make baby formula. Hot water is more likely to contain lead than cold water.

DEP will also distribute a second informational pamphlet to the parents of young children through pediatricians, hospitals, health clinics and other institutions that have contact with families. These pamphlets are available in English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Russian, Creole and Polish. They can be obtained by writing to DEP's Bureau of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, at 59-17 Junction Boulevard, Corona, New York 11368.

As of December 31, 1997, DEP had received nearly 40,000 requests for water tests. About 89 percent of the households tested had lead levels that met the Federal and State standard. Residences in which test results are significantly elevated are retested to verify the original results. The plumbing in the building is then inspected by DEP to determine the source of the lead contamination. In single-family buildings that test high, the person who requested the test is notified of the results and advised of the best ways to limit their lead exposure. When tests in multifamily dwellings indicate significantly elevated lead levels, the NYCDOH is also alerted and, when possible, conducts a separate building-wide lead-in-water investigation.

NYCDOH recommends that all children between ages of 6 months and 6 years be given blood tests for lead. City residents with questions about the health effects of lead exposure or about request a free test for lead in drinking water or more information, call the Department of Environmental Protection at (718) DEP-HELP. After the test has been taken, results are mailed to customer as soon as they are available, typically several weeks after the test has been taken. DEP also distributes a list of private certified laboratories that test for lead in drinking water.


More Information

NYC Department of Environmental Protection
Public Affairs

59-17 Junction Boulevard
19th Floor
Flushing, NY 11373

(718) 595-6600