Alarm Over Drinking Water Unwarranted, Officials Say

Times Staff Writer

A widely publicized report on lead contamination sparked unsubstantiated fears that refrigerated water fountains might cause lead poisoning in people who drink from them, federal health officials said.

The report, prepared for an agency of the U.S. Public Health Service and aired last month by the House subcommittee on health and environment, said "virtually all electric drinking water fountains in schools appear to have sizable elevations of lead in their water."

In making the report public, the panel's chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), said it shows that "electric drinking water coolers across the country may be poisoning the water they distribute." He urged manufacturers to stop using lead-lined tanks and lead-based pipe solder.

Widespread publicity given to the report prompted many schools throughout the nation to shut down their fountains and begin emergency testing of the water they dispensed. In California, state schools Supt. Bill Honig cited the report in issuing a statewide advisory calling on schools to turn off their fountains until the "potential lead hazard" could be evaluated.

But unfortunately, the officials said last week, the section of the report that caused the alarm was based on limited data that did not necessarily apply to schools.

"People at every level slipped up on this one," an official of the U.S. Public Health Service, requesting anonymity, said.

Leaping to Conclusions

Lawrence J. Jensen, assistant administrator for water in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said authors of the report used data from an informal test of drinking water at two U.S. Navy bases in Maryland. Then, he said, they "just leaped to some unsubstantiated conclusions" about the supposed lead danger from refrigerated fountains nationwide.

No test results from public schools or any other locations were used to see if they supported the Navy study, Jensen said. Despite that, a section of the 555-page report--"The Nature and Extent of Lead Poisoning in Children in the United States"--used the Navy data as the sole basis for the alleged danger from refrigerated fountains in schools.

The report also incorrectly attributes the Navy data to 1987 EPA studies on water fountains in schools--studies that were never made, Jensen said.

Jensen also said the EPA is not the source, as the report claims, for the statement that all fountain brands "produce high lead-levels in standing water" and that the holding tanks in the fountains are "usually" lead lined.

Arnold Braswell, a spokesman for the water-cooler industry, said the manufacturers have been made the "scapegoat." He called on federal health officials to disavow the congressional report and "set the record straight."

Braswell, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, said holding tanks in refrigerated fountains are made of copper or stainless steel.

Never, so far as anyone can determine, he said, have the tanks been lined with lead. "There would be no reason to use lead inside the tanks, since we don't use materials that are subject to water corrosion," he said.

Braswell said three of the nation's four major manufacturers of electric water fountains also have never used lead to solder copper joints. The fourth firm, Halsey Taylor of Freeport, Ill., switched to a non-lead solder last year, he said.

While deploring "overreactions" to the congressional report, the EPA's Jensen and other health officials said lead contamination in the nation's drinking water is a major concern. They said even very small quantities of lead can damage mental functions, especially in children, and cause hypertension and kidney disease in adults.

Jensen said the furor created by the "premature" release of the draft report "may be all to the good" if it helps draw attention to the problem and prompts schools to undertake more extensive water testing.

He said he hopes disclosures about how the report was prepared will not "undermine the credibility" of efforts to find and eliminate sources of lead contamination.

Problem in Pipes

In drinking water, Jensen said, the contamination comes "almost exclusively" from lead used to connect pipes in distribution systems--water mains and house plumbing. He said the EPA cannot "exonerate" electric water coolers unless new tests prove that they don't contribute lead to water. "The whole question is up in the air until we get more data," he said.

Jensen said that ever since the draft report came out at the Waxman hearings, "we have been trying to make people understand that some very strong statements (in the draft) are just not the case."

He said that when he was called to testify Dec. 11, he tried to point out problems in the study, "but Mr. Waxman and his people didn't want to hear it. They had made water coolers the focal point of the hearing."

Waxman was traveling out of the country Friday and could not be reached for comment. Greg Wetstone, a member of his staff, said that "as recently as Wednesday, nobody in the EPA was telling us that there was a problem (with the report) . . . I think it's unfair to suggest that somehow we should have been more critical of the report, when it went through three layers of bureaucracy before it got to us. At the hearing, all of them, including Larry Jensen, testified that the (information on water coolers) was credible."

Report to Be Revised

The report will be "drastically revised" before a final version is presented to Congress, probably in several weeks, an official in the Public Health Service said.

The Navy tests were prompted by a local commander's concern over the safety of drinking water, officials said. Early last year, he ordered tests at two facilities in Maryland. The tests, conducted over a period of about six months, produced a batch of mostly handwritten memos, listing faucet and fountain locations and the lead levels in water they dispensed.

The figures showed that some lead concentrations, from both tap water faucets and electric fountains, were as high as 40 times the EPA's proposed safe level of 20 parts per billion. Currently, the standard is 50 p.p.b.

The commander forwarded his raw data to the EPA, which passed it on to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the Public Health Service. The division was created in 1983 by Congress to look into public health hazards from contaminants in the environment.

Paul Mushak, a North Carolina expert in environmental contamination and senior author of the report, acknowledged that he had been "imprecise" in applying the Navy data to schools.

Demands for Retractions

After Mushak's conclusions were publicized, the four manufacturers who produce most of the nation's refrigerated fountains began bombarding the EPA and public health agencies with demands that they retract or clarify the study.

Braswell, the trade association president, criticized the application of the Navy data to schools and the "shoddy methodology" used by Mushak.

Braswell said the Navy testers did not disconnect the fountains and take samples from the pipes supplying them with water. Without doing that, he said, there was no "scientifically sound" way of establishing whether the lead came from building plumbing and water mains or the fountains.

Mushak said he used test levels from fountains and "nearby" faucets to determine the "probable level" of lead in water coming into the building. He said that some fountains, after a flushing period, showed even higher concentrations, leading him to the "reasonable conclusion" that they independently contributed lead.

Braswell countered that the Navy offered no diagrams that showed the exact locations of water outlets, and he said it was possible that flushing merely exhausted the fountain's holding tank, which "often" gave low readings in initial tests. After the flush, he said, the testers may have been measuring water from building pipes.

Tank Sawed in Half

The manufacturers' side received a setback when the Navy gave the EPA a holding tank from one of its fountains. According to an EPA test, the inside of the tank had a "uniform" deposit of lead, but the quantity was not determined.

The agency then sawed the tank into two parts, keeping one and giving the other half to Waxman.

Braswell said Friday that he plans to have his engineers test the tank. Meanwhile, he said, he can only speculate that the lead deposits could just as well have accumulated from lead emanating from water mains.

"On the basis of what they tell us, we can't say with absolute certainty that we don't have a (lead) problem," Braswell said. "We do object to these sweeping conclusions based on incomplete, contradictory data."

Another problem for the manufacturers arose when the Halsey Taylor Co., a Freeport, Ill., maker of fountains--including the one the Navy turned over to the EPA--disclosed that a decade ago it dipped some of its copper holding tanks in molten lead, instead of tin, to provide an exterior coating.

Switch Back to Tin

Robert Hoagland, the firm's president, said the coating facilitates the attachment of refrigeration tubes outside the tank. The use of lead on about 36,000 units over a nine-month period was discontinued and the firm switched back to tin, he said, after it was discovered that lead might seep through tiny pinholes in the holding tanks.

Hoagland said the company, which produces about 250,000 electric water coolers a year, voluntarily recalled about 14,000 of the suspected tanks. A research program, coordinated with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, determined that the risk of lead contamination was "minuscule" in the 22,000 units already installed, he said.

Mushak, the consultant, said he had no inkling that water coolers would become a national issue. In a massive draft report that covered "global concerns" about lead poisoning from many sources, the reference to water fountains "basically amounted to two short grafs and a data table," he said.

"I didn't go up there hellbent to talk about water coolers (at the Waxman hearings)," he said. But the panel "quickly focused on coolers . . . as a glaring symbol" of the overall problem, he said, and "the news media yanked out that little excerpt and ran with it."

Meanwhile, a sampling of California school districts indicates that most, if not all, complied with Honig's pre-Christmas request that they take action to deal with the "reported hazard of lead contamination."

"The directive we got from the state told us to conduct a survey, locate the fountains, shut them down, test them for lead--and that's what we'll be doing," said safety coordinator Doug Adams of the San Diego Unified School District.

Studies in Schools

Beverly Hills Unified ran water tests over the two-week holiday break and concluded that it had no problem.

Los Angeles Unified School District turned off all 814 of its refrigerated fountains and began supplying free-standing bottled water dispensers in the offices, faculty lounges and cafeterias where most of the fountains are located, said Jack Waldron, coordinator for employee safety. Testing of the fountains is under way, said district spokesman Bill Rivera.

In Orange County, most school districts are awaiting results from test samples, taken last month and sent to the county's Health Care Agency, before shutting off their fountains. Those results are not expected until about Jan. 22, said agency official Robert Merryman, who added that he sees "no immediate health hazard."

A spokesman for Sunroc Corp., a major supplier of refrigerated fountains based in Glen Riddle, Pa., said the firm has received "many panicky phone calls from California school districts."

Anthony Salamone, a Sunroc executive vice president, said he "understood the concern about lead being ingested by children," but he contended that California officials overreacted to the "questionable" draft report.

Officials in Honig's office said the congressional report put them in a position of being "damned if we do and damned if we don't."

"We are dealing with the safety of children," said Bill Rukeyser. "So when we get a report of a hazard from a legitimate agency, like the EPA or the Public Health Service, the only prudent course is to take action. And that's what we did."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
69°