There’s something in the water in Somerville, and it’s up to residents to find out if they’re at risk. High levels of lead were discovered in the drinking water of some homes, according to the annual test by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA).
Lead is a common metal, often found in homes as a result of lead-based paint, household dust, soil, and plumbing materials, according to an informational pamphlet dispersed to homeowners by the city.
This is not a Somerville-wide problem, and homeowners should be testing their water to ensure they are safe. While the water in the Quabbin Reservoir—one of two primary water supplies for Boston—does not contain any lead or copper, it may enter a resident’s through pipes, says Ria Convery, a representative from the MWRA. Older homes are especially at risk, especially if the plumbing hasn’t been updated in recent years.
Using lead solder in plumbing was banned in the United States in 1986, but older piping and lead service lines are still some of the primary sources for lead exposure in homes. If water sits in the pipes for a few hours before use—for example, when no one is running water overnight or during the workday—then it is more likely to contain lead. This occurs because water corrodes the lead-based materials used in the pipes.
In addition, brass faucets purchased in the first half of the decade and earlier may also add lead to tap water. The city recommends replacing older faucets, as the U.S. allowed brass fixtures like faucets to contain up to 8 percent lead until January 2014.
Residents can drastically reduce their risk of lead exposure by filtering water (make sure the filter is proven to remove lead,) running water for one to two minutes before drinking, cooking with cold water, testing their home water supply, and testing their child for lead.
As a part of the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) that requires the annual testing of water, the Somerville Water Department takes water samples from homes that are at a higher risk for lead exposure than average. In the fall 2019 sampling, the 90th percentile lead level for Somerville was 21.2 ppb (parts per billion), according to the pamphlet.
The federal action level for lead in drinking water under this rule is 15 ppb. Cities where the 90th percentile of water samples exceeds this level are required to address the problem through initiatives lead service line replacement programs, public education on lead in drinking water, improvements to corrosion control programs, and further monitoring of the water system, says Convery.
“Previous annual testing results showed that lead was under the action level of 15 ppb in all samples taken,” says John DeLuca, director of the water and sewer department for Somerville. “In 2019, lead testing results showed two homes that were over the action level at 21 PPB. All copper test results were under the action level.”
In addition, the two public schools that were sampled also returned lead and copper levels below the action level.
While only two of the 15 homes sampled returned tests reporting dangerous levels of lead, it’s still a good idea for homeowners to be proactive in checking the lead levels in their own homes, especially as the city rolls out programs aimed at decreasing lead overall.
Somerville is currently launching a lead service line replacement program, which would replace lead service lines found on private properties at no cost to the homeowner. This initiative is being funded by a zero-interest loan of $900,000, given to Somerville by the MWRA in December of 2019, according to Convery. She adds that this will likely cover the first 70 to 80 lead service line replacements, and that the city has around 450 lead service lines that need to be replaced.
The city anticipates the replacement of at least 60 lead service pipes in 2020 and will begin this process in April, says DeLuca.
“This replacement program will continue until all of the known lead service lines have been replaced,” he says.
The pamphlet released by the city was created in conjunction with the MWRA, as a part of the public education required by the LCR. Copies were mailed or hand delivered to organizations serving customers most at risk, including all public and private schools within the city, daycares, medical offices, clinics, and hospitals, says DeLuca. It was also mailed to all “constituents who are named as the responsible party for the property bill,” he adds.
This means that renters who are not named on the water or sewer bill may not have received the notice, and must seek out the information online. About 70 percent of Somerville residents are renters, according to a July 2019 article in the Somerville Journal.
To learn more about testing your water for lead, visit https://www.mwra.com/04water/html/testinglabs.html. To learn more about the lead service line replacement program, visit https://www.somervillema.gov/leadservices. To read the informational pamphlet about lead exposure online, visit https://www.somervillema.gov/sites/default/files/important-information-about-lead-in-your-drinking-water.pdf.