FOX 8 Investigates: Lead found in hundreds of N.O. water lines

FOX 8 Investigates: Lead found in hundreds of N.O. water lines
Source: New Orleans Office of Inspector General
Source: New Orleans Office of Inspector General

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - FOX 8 uncovers growing concerns about lead in New Orleans' drinking water. The Sewerage and Water Board tells us it is confident the city's water was safe. But an independent researcher from LSU says she has consistently found detectable lead in the hundreds of buildings that she's sampled.

"When they're thirsty, they'll just put the cup up to the faucet," says Hilary Molony Suthon, an Uptown resident, of her children. "I thought that was okay, up until now."

As part of a federally-required lead monitoring program, S&WB tested Suthon's water last year. The board informed her in a November 2016 letter, obtained by FOX 8, that the water was within federal safety limits.

"I didn't like the fact that there was any lead in the water," Suthon tells us, "but they seem to be telling me, hey, it's manageable. It's three parts per billion."

The term "parts per billion", or PPB, is commonly used to indicate how many micrograms of lead are found in a single liter of water.

LSU researchers also tested Suthon's water; she agreed to share those results with FOX 8.

Two of LSU's four samples tested within federal safety limits - but two others tested above the limits. In fact, they came in more than three times higher than S&WB's result, at 15.4 PPB and 16.8 PPB. That's above what's called the EPA's action level of 15 PPB.

Utilities across the country are required to monitor their cities' drinking water, under what's called the Lead and Copper Rule. According to those federal standards, no more than 10 percent of the homes sampled in that utility may exceed 15 PPB.

"I raised my children here," Suthon says. "So, as I understand it, they were here through the formative years of their development. And I trusted that the water was safe."

According to that LSU research, Suthon's home isn't the only one with elevated lead levels.

"I've sampled over 400 buildings in the New Orleans area," says Adrienne Katner, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at LSU.

She's been studying lead levels across the city since 2015.

"Even though I'm finding pretty consistently low water lead levels it's consistently detected," Katner warns. "Over 90-something percent of my homes had detectable lead. And so, what that tells me is that, especially for these vulnerable populations, it's something that we just need to be aware of."

Katner says it's important to remember that exposure to even low levels of lead can be dangerous, especially to children, pregnant women or infants.

"The action level is not a health-based standard and it was never intended to be," she says. The EPA has always said that this is a screening tool... In general, a lot of the homes had much lower water lead levels than you would see in a place like Flint [in Michigan]. But again, you know, there is really no safe blood lead level in a child. We see at lower and lower levels: lead can impact them and impact them permanently."

The Sewerage and Water Board says samples in New Orleans have been consistently below the EPA's action level of 15 PPB. Because of this, S&WB says, it only has to test for lead in the water every three years.

In 2016, the utility tested 107 homes, including Suthon's. And S&WB officials report they found only two homes above the EPA's action level.

In those cases, the S&WB replaced its side of those customers' lead service lines - the pipes that carry the water from the main pipeline to your house.

And those partial replacements may be contributing to the problem; Katner says alarmingly high lead levels were found in some of the homes she tested that had lead service lines replaced.

"When you only do a partial lead service line, as it's called - in other words, the utility only replaces their side of the line - you can have these very high spikes of water lead levels," Katner says. "And there is no requirement for the utility to tell the resident after these line replacements, and there is no requirement for them to change out the resident's line unless they are not in compliance with the regulations."

in April, we asked the S&WB executive director Cedric Grant about Suthon's lead levels. He insisted then that the drinking water in New Orleans is safe and well within federal and state guidelines.

"I participated in the test and yes, I drink the water every day," Grant told us.

FOX 8 has learned that the New Orleans inspector general is investigating how the Sewerage and Water Board tests drinking water. The IG sent a letter to Suthon, asking for her help, as his office reviews how the utility selected participants for its testing process - and whether those selected sites met federal criteria.

"I haven't seen the results of his analysis," Grant said in April. He described that as "not an inspection but an audit of the processes that the DHH and EPA conducted to do our triannual test. And I anxiously await the results to comment on them."

In the meantime, Suthon says, she's not taking any chances.

"We drink only bottled water," she tells us. "We cook with bottled water."

We have reached out again to S&WB after getting more detailed information from the LSU research; they have so far declined to do another interview.

The board says there is no lead in the water leaving their treatment plant or in the system's distribution lines. They also tell us they use a corrosion control treatment program to help prevent lead from leaching into the water from the service lines and the customer's plumbing.

If you have a home or business constructed before 1987, you may have lead plumbing. The Sewerage and Water Board says you can call them and they will replace the line, from the water main to the meter. But they say it's the homeowner's responsibility to replace any lead service lines that are between the meter and private property.

Katner says a water filter can go a long way toward reducing lead exposure. But not just any filter will do: you'll need to find one that:(1) specifically tests for lead, and (2) holds an NSF 53 certification or higher - that information should be on the packaging when you go shop for it.

And she recommends cleaning out the aerator filter on your faucet every week.

There's much more information about how to protect yourself from lead contamination in your water:

  • Go online to for federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Call 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636) and select option 9
  • If you use a telephone-text device (TTY), dial 888-232-6348.

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