U.S. Cities Are Concealing a Major Problem That Could Create a Public Health Crisis

June 3rd 2016

Aimee Kuvadia

A staggering 33 U.S. cities across 17 states are cheating on water-contamination tests and setting the stage for a serious public health crisis, The Guardian found, following an investigation launched shortly after scientists uncovered the toxic water crisis in Flint, Michigan.


EPA guidelines allow some lead in tap water — 15 parts per billion — even though no amount of the metal is safe. The agency considers water containing 5,000 parts per billion toxic waste; in Flint, some samples tested as high as 13,200 parts per billion, according to the researchers on the front lines of the disaster.

Flint's water problems were precipitated by the state's desire to cut about $1 million in costs by pumping free drinking water out of the Flint River, a hotbed of sewage, farm runoff, and industrial waste, and then they were exacerbated by questionable water-testing procedures and environmental officials' slow reaction time.

Three Flint government employees are facing criminal charges.

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech scientist we can thank for exposing the water crisis in Flint, spoke to ATTN:.

"For the most part, water utilities do a good job in producing high-quality water at low cost, but when it comes to lead they have betrayed the public trust. They have behaved in a manner, that would truly do the tobacco industry of 30 years ago proud, and they did it with no profit motive whatsoever. The public has rightly lost trust in their utilities, primacy agencies and the U.S. EPA. It is very disheartening."

Dam above Flint River

Now we're learning that at least 21 cities — Detroit, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee, among others — are using the same sort of water-testing "cheats" that got Flint in trouble. Though Flint was also in deep trouble for its water sourcing.

These cities, like Flint, allegedly cheated to obscure how much lead was contained in their drinking water. And according to Edwards, the EPA deserves at least some of the blame for that.

"The EPA has become an international embarrassment, and has been incapable of either admitting or learning from their mistakes in Flint or Washington, D.C.," Edwards said.

"Since January, however, after the national outrage reached a fever pitch, they have tried their best to do their job," he added. "America can be proud of its front line EPA employees and scientists, even as incompetent upper management repeatedly proves itself unworthy of the public trust."

When ATTN: reached out to the EPA for comment, the agency sent us a statement that describes ways it plans to improve.

"(The) EPA has already intensified our work with state drinking water programs with a priority focus on implementation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule, including directing EPA staff to meet with officials from every state to make sure they’re addressing any high lead levels and fully implementing the current rule," the EPA said in the statement.

Here's how water testing works.

For a quarter-century, the EPA has tasked water departments with testing a small pool of households for lead contamination at least every three years, according to The Guardian. But these water departments, instead of collecting the samples themselves, are delegating the responsibility to homeowners, which is resulting in inaccurate tests.

The Guardian found that some water departments are instructing testers to collect samples using incorrect methods, or worse, excluding households with possibly high levels of lead from testing.

Some techniques taught to testers that flout EPA guidelines including running faucets prior to the testing period to "pre-flush" them and reduce the amount of lead in the water; filling sample bottles slowly; and removing "aerators," or faucet filters.

Michigan and New Hampshire suggested water utilities test early so, if needed, high-lead samples could be tossed and officials could retest the water, The Guardian reported.

A few cities went so far as to assert they had no knowledge about the locations of lead pipes, and they refused to test homes that had them, citing a security risk.

"The water industry has to stop misleading consumers about the safety of tap water in many cities — especially those with lead pipes," Edwards told ATTN:.

The effects of lead contamination.

Although the national guard has been passing out hundreds of thousands of water bottles to Flint residents, it is likely that the damage has already reached a point of no return.

It's projected thousands of children in the city will experience developmental problems — including hypertension, kidney damage, hearing loss, speech impairment, intellectual disabilities, and a weakened immune system — as a result of drinking lead-laced water, Think Progress reports. Children exposed to lead at a young age are also at higher risk for convulsions, coma, and death.

A correlation between lead exposure and cancer has yet to be established, but several domestic and international health and environmental agencies, including the EPA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, believe it's probably that lead is carcinogenic, or cancer causing .

Fatal and nonfatal renal, digestive, cardiovascular, reproductive and nervous system issues may also develop as a result of lead contamination.

“(Some cities) make lead in water low when collecting samples for EPA compliance, even as it poisons kids who drink the water,” Edwards told The Guardian. “Clearly, the cheating and lax enforcement are needlessly harming children all over the United States."

He added:

“If they cannot be trusted to protect little kids from lead in drinking water, what on Earth can they be trusted with? Who amongst us is safe?”

water bottles

Is your city on the list?

Here are the at least 33 cities with water-testing techniques in violation of EPA guidelines that The Guardian found through Freedom of Information Act requests.

New England

  • Boston, MA
  • Worcester, MA
  • Springfield, MA
  • Bridgeport, CT
  • Portland, ME
  • Lewiston, ME
  • Bangor, ME
  • South Burlington, VT


  • Philadelphia
  • Buffalo, NY
  • Jersey City, NJ
  • Albany, NY
  • Croton-on-Hudson, NY


  • Chicago
  • Detroit
  • Columbus, OH
  • Grand Rapids, MI
  • Aurora, IL
  • Rockford, IL
  • Warren, MI
  • Galesburg, IL
  • Sebring, OH


  • Miami
  • Tampa, FL
  • Greensboro, NC
  • St. Petersburg, FL
  • Augusta, GA
  • Jackson, MS
  • Charleston, SC
  • Mount Pleasant, SC
  • Bowling Green, KY
  • Southaven, MS

If you live in one of these four cities, your drinking water is likely safe.

These U.S. cities are in compliance with the EPA's water-testing guidelines, according to The Guardian:

  • Cincinnati
  • Louisville, KY
  • Jacksonville, FL
  • Mobile, AL