Philadelphia is an old city, and with the past Flint, Michigan water scare, it is no surprise that citizens are worried. I know I live in a historic brewery dating back to the 1800s and I can’t be sure what kind of water pipes are underneath my home. A post from Philly.com got my attention this week announcing an organization embarking on a citizen science water quality study. It’s called Philly Unleaded Project, and besides having a cool name, they’ve partnered with Virginia Tech’s lab, the one responsible for revealing lead contamination in Flint and Washington, DC. Together they are offering DIY kits so residents can check their own tap water for lead.
Philly Unleaded assures it is an impartial organization with the goal of collecting more data than usual for a city.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) mandates monitoring for lead in water at a small number of high-risk homes and ensuring that there is no severe and widespread contamination. A water utility’s compliance with the LCR, however, offers no guarantee that lead-in-water levels at individual homes are not high or even extremely high. Our goal is to offer residents at all homes (high-risk and not) the opportunity to test their tap water.
The project draws attention to the issue of testing water for lead which The Guardian outlines in detail. The EPA suggested one method, while cities decided to do their own variations, including flushing the system, taking off the aerators or running the tap at a slow rate. These inconsistencies can bring about a lower lead reading, when the reading really needs to show the worst-case scenario for the resident. There were 33 cities that violated the EPA’s guidance, so if you haven’t heard about the problem yet, you probably will.
Philly Unleaded is off to a good start with their kits, which are not only affordable, but free to those with no/low income. In fact, you can donate to have a kit made available to a family. Of course like many test situations there is the problem of window of time, and the organization makes this clear. Water quality can fluctuate based on storms and other factors. So, you have to go into this knowing that the test will only be accurate for the day it was done. However, at least it will establish a base for Philly.
Remember that the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has many monitoring stations, so often things like depth, temperature and conductivity are being recorded for rivers in the area which may affect your drinking water. You can actually sign up for alerts to keep tabs on water in your watershed. I have data sent to me about the Schuylkill River near my home and it is interesting to see how quickly conductivity changes. It’s also fun to delve into DIY monitoring devices. Did you know people are using Arduino dataloggers with sensors to pull data? Check out our Maxbotix Weather-Resistant Ultrasonic Rangefinder, capable of pinging distance to get depth changes in streams. Citizen scientists can build their own systems to record their local waterways and contribute to the world’s environmental data.