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It's not just Flint, lead in drinking water is a nationwide problem

People drink water from a six spigot water fountain.
People drink water from a six spigot water fountain.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

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The water crisis in Flint has brought an intense amount of scrutiny on lead and other contaminants in the nation's water supplies. And one Southern California city is finding itself  caught up in the controversy.

An USA Today investigation looking at how widespread the problem of lead contaminated water is in the country published last week has found excessive levels of lead in close to 2000 water systems in all 50 states. One of them, the paper cited, belongs to Monterey Park, which is said to have had a lead level 1,700 percent over the allowable threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The San Gabriel Valley city of 60,000-plus residents is disputing the claim. The city’s Water Utility Manager Frank Heldman has provided AirTalk with results from a lead test the city conducted in 2015 showing a level well below the 15 ppb cutoff.

The California Water Resources Control Board, the state agency that regulates water rights and quality, is backing Monterey Park's claim, stating that the city has had no lead level exceedances between 2000 to 2015. The data concerning Monterey Park that USA Today had obtained from the EPA was wrong to begin with, the agency tells AirTalk,  due to a “data entry error”.

The incident exposes a pitfall of data driven story: that an analysis is only as solid as the raw data it is built on. In its report, USA Today has said that about 5 percent of water system records it obtained contain errors.

How does a city like Monterey Park test for lead and other contaminants in its water? How widespread is lead contamination in the nation’s water supplies?


Richard G. Luthy, a water expert and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University

Frank Heldman, City of Monterey Park's Water Utility Manager