Water, Water Everywhere, but is it Safe to Drink?

Disparities Louisiana Wade's World Water

            New Orleans      Louisiana State University Professor Adrienne Katner knows something about water.  In fact, as Director of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Program at the LSU Health Sciences Center School of Public Health, let’s face it, she knows a whole lot about water, particularly whether it’s safe to drink, and more specifically, whether lead has contaminated it past even acceptable poisonous levels.  Professor Katner has been a longtime partner of ACORN affiliate, A Community Voice, in Louisiana.  I’ve met her several times and have known her in various ways for years, because, as a “lead-head”, she’s a legend in our home.  A scheduled discussion about water was scrubbed at the last minute, when my guest reported that Covid had brought him low, but water was on my mind, and it was past time to bring Professor Katner on Wade’s World to purify the discussion on water.

Katner has tested water quality all over Louisiana, and found particularly horrifying lead contamination in some small town, largely rural, communities, like St. Joseph and Enterprise, which in one case led to an entire replacement of the water system.  Before anyone thinks, hey, I live in a big city, thank goodness, I’m safe, you better buckle down tight.  Katner shared that the EPA requirements for testing virtually don’t exist in those small systems, but they aren’t much better in cities.  Cities over 100,000 in population, like New Orleans, are only required to take ten samples every three years.  Twenty-five is about average in cities.  Doesn’t seem like enough, does it?  Worse, she says that depending on the time and place of the tests, the results can be misleading and totally different, how should I say this, between night and day.  The EPA is finally revising its lead and copper standards, so she’s hopeful, but the risks remain regardless.

We talked at length about the issue of lead service lines or whips as they are called in some cities.  These are the pipes that run from the main and the street to the meter and residential water systems.  Testing in homes can be impacted by whether the kitchen for example is at the front or rear of the house.  In Louisiana, one of the more controversial measures that former New Orleans state Senator Karen Carter Peterson pushed through the legislature, was making homeowners financially responsible for replacing the service lines.  In Milwaukee, where I did some work in the Amani neighborhood, the poorest census track in Wisconsin, before the pandemic, the fight over who paid was constant.  Professor Katner took a middle of the road position on who should pay, partially because she is concerned that the cure could be as problematic as the disease if the replacement is PVC pipe, which could eventually leech into the soil and water system with unknown consequences.  When I asked what’s best, she cited researchers that are still trying to figure that out.

Katner was clear that research shows that any lead in the water can be destructive.  Even though that was hardly news, and could be a total bummer, given the problems of replacing service lines, she argued that a relatively cheap and easy solution is at hand for all of us.  Either put a filter on the kitchen faucet or use one of the water filter systems on offer everywhere, like Brita or whatever.  They do an excellent job, she reports.  We shared stories about the fact that this only works if you provide and regularly change the filter.  Her story predated her expertise, and mine involved a favor for a friend in Nairobi years ago.  You gotta learn!

Why there isn’t a more aggressive public health campaign arguing for such filters was a big mystery to both of us, but there was no mystery about whether families need to get the lead out of their water.

It needs to happen today!