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MUB, MCHD working to identify, eliminate lead exposure

On Thursday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new regulations regarding lead pipes aimed at eliminating the chance for lead exposure through drinking water within 10 years. 

Water utilities nationwide must submit an initial inventory of lead service lines by Oct. 16, 2024. From that point on, annual progress reports will be mandatory until every line in the system is confirmed lead-free. 

Locally, the Morgantown Utility Board is already digging into records dating back to the 1920s to research some 40,000 service lines in its coverage area. 

Lead pipes are more likely to be found in older cities and serving homes built before 1986. Congress banned their use in the late ’80s but allowed existing lines to remain in service. 

MUB Assistant General Manager Rich Rogers said the utility intends to check anything put in the ground prior to 1990. 

So far, he said no lead pipes have been identified in the MUB system, but there’s still a lot of work to do — particularly since the inventory must also include everything on the customer’s side. 

“We haven’t found any in our research to this point … but we do have a lot of unknowns, and so we’re trying to figure out the best way to go about that. Is it water sampling? Is it doing some physical verification?” Rogers said. “Eliminating unknowns is going to be our biggest challenge going forward. It’s not the lead. It’s being able to justify and document that we know what it is.” 

The new rules come nearly a decade since the public health disaster in Flint, Mich., put the issue of contaminated drinking water on the nightly news. Even so, it remains a national concern.    

According to the EPA, there were more than 9 million lead pipes delivering water to homes in the U.S. in 2021, or roughly 9% of the existing infrastructure. 

The heavy metal is a powerful neurotoxin. The EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood. Prolonged exposure will result in significant and irreversible health impacts, particularly in children as they absorb it at higher levels.  

So, when kids in Clarksburg began showing up with elevated lead levels, the focus turned immediately to testing and tracking the source of the contaminants. 

The Monongalia County Health Department was part of that effort, spearheading a pilot program through the supplemental nutrition program WIC in 2022 to test children in Harrison County for lead exposure. 

MCHD oversees WIC for a six-county region, including Harrison. 

Public Information Officer MaryWade Burnside said 178 children were tested through the program in the last three months or so.

Monongalia County Health Officer Dr. Lee Smith was asked Thursday if those tests were still showing elevated levels in some children. 

“Yes. The children’s levels have been shotgun. They’re all over the board. It’s difficult to find the smoking gun, so to speak. They thought originally it was going to be lead from the pipes, and that does seem to be the most-likely candidate,” Smith said, adding, “So the jury is still out. We’re still doing the testing. It’s an epidemiology process right now to figure out where changes need to be made, but by and large, it’s water supply.”  

Camilla Haught, who oversees the WIC program for the health department, said there’s a push at the state level to expand the pilot program into the entire six-county coverage area and beyond.

The blood test kits cost $8.59 each. The machines needed to produce results are about $3,000 each. 

“In the grand scheme of things, that’s a small investment considering the economic impacts and the health impacts for a sizable number of children who could be impacted by this,” Monongalia County Board of Health member Keith Zullig said. “This is not a new issue. We’ve known about this for quite a while now. It seems that there should be some urgency here given the impacts on kids.” 

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