Water systems serving about 57,186 Oklahoma residents recently had testing samples that exceed the federal lead standard.

That’s nearly the equivalent of Boone Pickens stadium packed full of Oklahomans living with serious lead levels in their water supply.

And 427 residents may not be aware their water exceeds lead standards because the supplier failed to tell them.

In Yale, routine water monitoring tests in February revealed lead levels more than double the Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable amount in some of the town’s drinking water from corroding pipes.

Routine tests in January 2015 found lead levels more than 10 times the permissible amount in water at a correctional center in Alva, an analysis by The Frontier found. The source of the lead is unknown, but the state Corrections Department is working with Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality to resolve the issue, said Terri Watkins, Oklahoma DOC spokeswoman.

In a mobile home park in Oklahoma County, recent tests showed four out of five water samples taken had lead levels that exceeded the acceptable amount. The water system was one of the suppliers that failed to give public education to its users.

The department oversees more than 1,600 water systems, and 19 of those have lead levels exceeding the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion, according to ODEQ records.

The Oklahoma County mobile home park was one of three systems in violation because they had yet to distribute public education to consumers, according to department records. If the action level for lead is exceeded, a water system is to inform the public on steps to protect their health. The systems, Parkway Mobile Home Park C/O Stonetown Capitol, Beaver County RWD #2 and Mary Jackson Mobile Home Park (TP), could not be reached for comment.

Water system name Population served County Lead in water (parts per billion) Corrosion control
Avant Utilities Authority: 361 Osage 19.3 No
Beaver County RWD #2 (Gate) 87 Beaver 49.7 No
Buffalo 1,200 Harper 31 No
Cannon Mobile Home Park 63 McIntosh 18.6 No
Charles E Johnson Corr Center 444 Woods 279 No
Cherokee 1,630 Alfalfa 63.5 Yes
Douglas 32 Garfield 378 No
Latimer County RWD #2 1,500 Latimer 29.7 No
Woodhaven (LRED) 200 Cherokee 17.5 No
Mary Jackson TP (Mobile home park) 50 Carter 26.6 No
McCurtain Co RWD #8 (Mt. Fork Water) 5,685 McCurtain 31.2 No
Moore 41,138 Cleveland 40 No
Morris 1,440 Okmulgee 221 Yes*
Oakview Water Corp 925 Marshall 16.2 No
Parkway Mobile Home Park  C/O Stonetown Capitol 290 Oklahoma 82.5 No
Seminole CO RW&SWMD #3 337 Seminole 73.5 No
Thirsty Water Corporation 200 Greer 52.3 No
Tupelo 377 Coal 31.8 No
Yale 1,227 Payne 34.3 No
Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality collects several samples from a water system and looks at the 90th percentile to determine the quality of the water.
*No corrosion control at Morris, however it purchases water from Okmulgee, where corrosion control is installed and operated.

Prompted by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the EPA on Feb. 29 announced plans to increase enforcement of state drinking water programs and urged states to locate lead pipes as required. When departments know where lead pipes are located, it’s easier to target areas that could potentially test high in lead.

But in Oklahoma, it is unknown where lead pipes are and how many there are, Erin Hatfield, a spokeswoman for ODEQ wrote in an email.

Old, corroding lead pipes in private residences built before 1986 are commonly the source of elevated lead levels in drinking water, said Patty Thompson, the engineering manager for the public water supply group in the ODEQ Water Quality Division. The division collects several samples from a water system and looks at the 90th percentile to determine the quality of the system’s water every six months to every three years, depending on the system, she said.

“The site sample plan aims at getting a certain number of older homes because those are the ones that are most likely to have the lead and copper,” Thompson said.

The ODEQ’s Water Quality Division’s lab monitors samples taken from all of the state’s water systems, which is put into the department’s database, Thompson said. The division’s compliance section evaluates the information to determine which samples have exceeded the EPA’s lead action level of 15 ppb and then sends out notices when the lead exceeds that, she said.

Water systems that receive notices of lead exceedance are required to complete water quality monitoring, public education and a treatment recommendation, said Michele Welsh, ODEQ Environmental Programs manager. If the system doesn’t finish the tasks, it is issued a violation, which could lead to a fine.

Since 2010, ODEQ issued 542 violations of the EPA’s Lead and Copper rule, a 25-year-old regulation that controls lead and copper in drinking water, department records show. However, in the last five years, the violations have not resulted in financial penalties, Hatfield said.

Controlling lead levels in private homes can be tricky because the department doesn’t have the authority to go in and replace piping, Thompson said. The best way to manage levels in residences is through corrosion control, she said.

With corrosion control, chemicals are inserted into a water system, which coats service lines and pipes and helps reduce corrosion in plumbing, Thompson said.

Of the 19 water systems with lead exceedances, two operate with corrosion control, according to ODEQ records.

In 2013, when Flint, Michigan, began drawing its water from the Flint River, the local water treatment plant did not use corrosion-control chemicals as required for the new water source, allowing lead to enter into the city’s drinking water through aging service pipes and lines.

In plans the EPA sent to states Feb. 29, the agency also said it would increase oversight of state programs to identify and address any deficiencies, and would ensure that states are taking the proper actions to identify and address lead exceedances.

The water quality division wants to boost its quality control efforts by assembling a group of engineers to perform corrosion control in water systems with lead exceedances, but the chemicals will take time to work, Thompson said. The engineers are in the preliminary process of meeting with their assigned water systems.

“It’s not an easy fix,” Thompson said. “We’re doing a big push and being proactive because lead is not a good thing.”

Lead in paint

At the same time, deteriorated lead paint and elevated levels of lead-contaminated house dust are present in an estimated 24 million U.S. houses, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The long-term effects that lead poisoning can cause include learning disabilities, hyperactivity, impaired hearing and brain damage. Infants and young children are most susceptible to lead poisoning, said Susan Quigley, program manager for the Oklahoma Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.

“Mainly because they’re still developing,” she said. “Children are more likely to have hand and mouth behavior with touching something and putting it in their mouth. They’re small, and they breathe more often than adults. They’re just lower on the ground.”

There are not symptoms of lead poisoning until lead levels get extremely high, Quigley said.

“So, the child who has an elevated level might look exactly like a child who doesn’t,” Quigley said. “A lot of the damage is being done over time, and it’s things that are not so easy to measure.”

Because there aren’t any symptoms of lead poisoning, Quigley said she recommends all children receive a blood-lead screening at 12 months old and then again at 24 months. If someone is curious about a home having lead-based paint, they can find a certified inspector to test their residence, she said.

Tar Creek Superfund site

In Picher and Cardin, intensive lead/zinc mining and ore processing left tons of mine waste in the Oklahoma portion of Tar Creek, a former Tri-State Mining District that encompasses portions of Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri.

When mining finished in the 1970s, chat — a powdery output of mills after ore is extracted — was left behind. Acidic mine water also contaminated the local surface water, some used recreationally. Local children played among the contaminated dust and water, and that contributed to elevated blood lead levels in as much as 43 percent of children in some communities, according to the ODEQ.

The Tar Creek Superfund site was added to the national priorities list for cleanup in 1983. The DEQ, EPA and the Quapaw Tribe continue to monitor the site.

No follow-up studies have been conducted on the children who lived in these communities, Quigley said.

Map children testing for lead 2014

The map shows data for children age 6-72 months. The blood lead levels are measured in micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL). 0-4 means very little lead in the child’s blood. A level of 5 or more is higher than most children, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data from CDC.

Testing water

The EPA requires all water systems to prepare and deliver a Consumer Confidence Report for customers by July 1 of every year. Contact your water utility to get a copy of their latest report, or if you get your water from a private well visit http://www.epa.gov/privatewells

Because aging pipes in individuals’ homes are often the culprit behind elevated lead levels, you can also start with your local water provider; some will test your house for free.

You can also buy a home lead testing kit from a home improvement store and send the kit to an accredited laboratory for results.

Protecting yourself from lead

Some of the recommendations from the EPA for homes that test high in lead levels are as follows:

  1. Run your water to flush out lead. Run water for 15-30 seconds to flush lead from interior plumbing or until it becomes cold or reaches a steady temperature before using it for drinking or cooking, if it hasn’t been used for several hours.
  2. Use cold water for cooking and preparing baby formula. Lead dissolves more easily into hot water.
  3. Do not boil water to remove lead. Boiling water will not reduce lead. 
  4. Look for alternative sources or treatment of water. You may want to consider purchasing bottled water or a water filter. Read the package to be sure the filter is approved to reduce lead or contact NSF International at 800-NSF-8010 or www.nsf.org for information on performance standards for water filters. 
  5. Test your water for lead.
  6. Get your child’s blood tested. If lead levels persist, contact your local health department or healthcare provider to find out how you can get your child tested for lead, if you are concerned about exposure.
  7. Identify and replace plumbing fixtures containing lead. Brass faucets, fittings, and valves, including those advertised as “lead-free,” may contribute lead to drinking water. The law currently allows end-use brass fixtures, such as faucets, with up to 8% lead to be labeled as “lead free.” Visit the NSF website at www.nsf.org to learn more about lead-containing plumbing fixtures.