The Columbus City Utilities office is assuring local residents that the city’s water is clear of lead contamination as the fallout from the Flint, Michigan, water crisis continues to cause national concern.

A recent test of lead levels in Columbus home water samples came back clean, said Keith Reeves, Columbus Utilities director.

Routine testing of the city’s water sources has consistently shown safe levels of lead in the water supply, Reeves said.

The utilities department normally tests 30 to 50 homes for lead contamination every three years but chose to do an off-schedule test this year as concern about contamination grew because of the situation in Flint, Reeves said.

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The Michigan city declared a state of emergency late last year after a study found high levels of lead in water sources for much of the city, making the water dangerous to drink.

Flint residents — nearly half of whom live below the federal poverty level — began noticing signs of contamination in their water in early 2015, including water in local schools. Some children began showing signs of contamination-related illnesses, such as rashes and other unexplained illness.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency confirmed that the city’s water contained nearly seven times the legal limit of lead in February 2015, and that level continued to rise throughout the year.

Studies found that corroding pipes in the city’s water system, mainly the Flint River, were contributing to the contamination. Churches, government leaders, non-profit organizations and others around the country began calling on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and other state leaders to provide relief to Flint residents.

The Michigan state government began taking corrective actions to provide safe drinking water for Flint residents, but a federal lawsuit was ultimately filed against the state for failure to adhere to the Safe Water Drinking Act.

To prevent that kind of crisis locally, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management requires Columbus Utilities and other water suppliers across Indiana to test water samples from local homes every three years for lead and copper contamination.

Local utilities must take corrective actions, including making a public announcement, if more than 10 percent of the tested homes ever show more than 15 parts per billion — or 0.015 milligrams per liter– of lead in the water. The cutoff for copper levels is 1.3 parts per million.

According to Reeves and other Columbus water providers, local residents have never been in danger of drinking water that meets or crosses those limits.

Regional testing

No Columbus water utilities have met or exceeded the 15 parts per billion limit for lead in their water in the past three years, according to data from the EPA. That data includes water samples from Reeves’ office, as well as Southwestern Bartholomew Water Corp., Eastern Bartholomew Water Corp. and Garden City Mobile Home Park.

The EPA data showed one incident of high lead levels in Columbus in the past decade. The federal agency reports that water in Garden City Mobile Home Park showed a lead level of 50 parts per billion in 2006. However, Anne Ogle, the mobile home park’s manager, said that report is inaccurate and the property’s lead levels were well below the 15 parts per billion limit at that time.

Other Columbus area water suppliers, including Southwestern and Eastern Bartholomew Water corporations, said their water samples have consistently shown safe levels of chemicals, including lead, over the years.

Southwestern Bartholomew Water general manager Alan Ross said his company buys its water from the city utilities. The only difference is that Southwestern softens the water once it is purchased, Ross said.

Like city utilities, Southwestern conducts lead testing every three years, with the most recent tests completed in 2014. The next cycle will begin next year, when around 20 homes will be tested for lead levels in their water, Ross said.

Ross’ company serves about 3,065 local customers who live in the southwestern part of Bartholomew County, from as far north as Georgetown Road and as far south as Waymansville, as well as in the Lutheran Lake and Wood Lake areas and parts of Brown County.

Eastern Bartholomew Water Corp. follows the same three-year cycle as Southwestern Bartholomew and will do its next round of testing in 2017, said Don Smith, Eastern Bartholomew Water superintendent.

Smith said his company serves about 5,300 customers in an area that makes a horseshoe around the Columbus municipal area, extending as far west as Wayne Township.

About 30 homes in the Eastern Bartholomew service area are sampled every three years, Smith said. Often, those samples are taken from older homes that are at a higher risk for contamination because of outdated lead plumbing, he said.

Columbus City Utilities generally asks customers to volunteer as sample homes, Reeves said. The utility also tries to target some high-risk areas of town, which are generally the older areas where lead pipes are prevalent, he said.

Brenda Wagner, a homeowner who lives in the High Vista subdivision on the northeast side of Columbus, has participated in the city drinking water testing several times in recent years. While High Vista is not an area that is at risk for lead contamination, copper plumbing has been used in that area, which increases the potential for copper contamination.

Each time her supply has been sampled, Wagner said she collects tap water early in the morning before anyone in her house has had a chance to disturb the sample by taking a shower, flushing the toilet or running the sink.

She then leaves her water sample on the front porch, and someone from the city utilities office picks it up and sends it in to a private lab for testing.

When the results come in, Wagner said she receives a letter detailing the various levels of chemicals in her water.

“We’ve always been in the acceptable range for lead,” she said.

Lead’s legacy

When Columbus began testing its water for lead in the 1980s, it was done on annual basis, Reeves said. But because local water sources like Wagner’s were consistently clean, the city was cleared to test on a three-year schedule, he said.

There are two possible sources of lead in the local water supply, Reeves said.

First, water lines that were installed prior to 1955 were put in with a “lead gooseneck” — about 2 feet of lead piping attached to the service line that was meant to provide flexibility and guard against fractures that could be caused by the changing seasons.

Second, copper water lines installed before 1986 used lead solders to connect the pipes, putting homes at risk for both copper and lead contamination.

Of the 15,000 accounts Columbus City Utilities serves, an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 are still receiving water from a lead service line, Reeves said.

About 6.1 million lead service lines still exist in the United States today, affecting about 11,200 community water systems across the country, according to a report from the American Water Works Association.

Reeves said homes in the older parts of the city, especially those built before 1955, are the most likely to receive their water from a lead service line.

However, owning an older home does not automatically put a homeowner at risk for contamination, the utilities director said.

Reeves’ office replaces 100 to 200 water service lines each year, so the lead-based plumbing in many older homes in Columbus has already been removed or upgraded, he said.

Additionally, Reeves said the Columbus water supply is not aggressive, meaning it does leach out lead often.

Similarly, a phosphate water additive meant to counter the effects of contamination is included in the water used by Columbus residents, Reeves said. The additive was not used in Flint.

The utilities department is currently working to compile an inventory of all homes in Columbus that receive their water through a lead service line so utilities workers can continue replacing affected pipes. Reeves’ goal is to complete the inventory by early next year so he can create a schedule to replace all local lead service lines.

The utilities office is also in the process of creating a website with information about possible sources of lead contamination and links to reports on contamination from various health organizations.

Despite the ongoing crisis in Flint, Reeves emphasized that local residents do not need to be concerned about the state of their water sources. However, if residents think there is a possibility of contamination in their water, he recommended calling the city utilities department or hiring a private lab to test the water for lead levels.

Signs of possible lead contamination

Lead contamination is invisible, so it is impossible to see it in your water. However, a reddish color in your water supply could be a sign of some sort of contamination. If you have concerns, Columbus Utilities director Keith Reeves recommends hiring a private lab to test your water for lead and other chemicals.

Side effects of lead in water

Side effects of water lead contamination can vary depending on a person’s age and health. Some lead-related health issues include:

Children

  • Behavior and learning problems
  • Lower IQ and hyperactivity
  • Slowed growth
  • Hearing problems
  • Anemia

Pregnant women

  • Reduced growth of fetus
  • Premature birth

Adults

  • Cardiovascular issues, increased blood pressure and hypertension
  • Reproductive problems for both men and women

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Water utilities

Columbus City Utilities, 1111 McClure Road, Columbus. Serves 15,000 water customers in city of Columbus. Call 812-372-8861 or visit columbusutilities.org

Southwestern Bartholomew Water Corp., 4735 W. Carlos Folger, Drive, Columbus. Serves 3,065 water customers primarily in southwestern Bartholomew County. Call 812-342-4421

Eastern Bartholomew Water Corp., 2413 West County Road 700 N, Taylorsville. Serves 5,300 water customers in northern, eastern and southern Bartholomew County. Call 812-9777 or visit ebwconline.net

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.