| Public outreach key to mitigating lead risks
AWWA Articles

Public outreach key to mitigating lead risks

One of the most impactful ways to protect consumers from lead in drinking water is to empower them to act on their own behalf.

With that in mind, the experts advising the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year recommended several revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule that go beyond treatment or sampling protocols. Rather, many recommendations from the National Drinking Water Advisory Council focus on how and how often water utilities should talk to their customers about lead.

"Public outreach is always important and surely it will be emphasized in the revised Lead and Copper Rule,” said AWWA CEO David LaFrance. “The Flint water crisis has increased everyone’s awareness of their water, and naturally customers look to their utility to answer their questions. Now is an important time to clearly talk to their customers about how their utility is protecting them against the risks of lead and also what they can do to protect themselves.”

Earlier this spring, the AWWA Board of Directors voted unanimously to support the NDWAC recommendations. 

The NDWAC’s public education guidance focused on efforts aimed at improving consumer understanding of the health risks associated with lead exposure, identifying whether their homes have lead service lines, explaining the “shared responsibility” between utilities and customers, and providing access to available resources. 

Specifically, the council recommended that water systems:

Provide new customers with information on the potential risks of lead in drinking water;
Expand current consumer confidence report to include local information about the risks posed by lead service lines, as well as information on steps customers can take to remove lead service lines; 
Engage in targeted outreach to customers with lead service lines;
Strengthen public access to information about lead service lines, lead monitoring results, and other relevant information, particularly using utility websites.

Recognizing that water systems have limited resources to craft public health messaging and informational materials, the NDWAC recommended EPA establish an easily accessible national clearinghouse on lead in drinking water to serve both the public and water systems. There are some materials already available on EPA’s website

and at awwa.org/lead.

EPA stressed the importance of public outreach and transparency in a letter to state primacy agencies on Feb. 29. The agency emphasized themes consistent with the NDWAC recommendations, asking states to work with utilities to post information online about the location of lead service lines, the results of lead sampling, and practices and protocols to understand and manage lead release.

Many utilities in North America have found that candidly addressing lead and other sensitive topic improves the level of trust and strengthens the utility-customer relationship. The NDWAC report’s authors recommended moving away from traditional one-way communication toward “newer concepts of risk communication that involve sustained, multiple, two-way channels of ongoing communication and partnership with the public.”

In addition to public outreach recommendations, the NDWAC called for increased monitoring and optimization of corrosion control processes and the longer term goal of the removal of all lead service lines. 

On May 3, leaders from four large utilities gathered with more than 100 colleagues and media at the National Press Club to talk about outreach strategies specific to the removal of lead service lines. Among the panelists was Greater Cincinnati Water Works Director Cathy Bailey, who described her utility’s online tool that allows property owners to determine whether they have lead service lines.

“It’s the right thing to do. We saw a need for more transparency and want customers to have this information,” Bailey explained. “Most customers assume that they do not have a lead service line, and most of our customers don’t. Although we have excellent treatment practices, we realize there is still a risk for some customers. We are moving toward being a lead-safe city, and this is a critical step.”

After the Flint, Mich., crisis occurred, GCWW also set up a lead website and hotline to address questions and concerns.

In Boston, where an estimated 5,000-plus private lead service lines remain, the Boston Water and Sewer Commission has supplemented extensive public education efforts with an interest-free loan program that allows property owners to pay for the lead service replacement over 48 months. 

“Our approach is that we need to communicate the importance of removing lead service lines to consumers, but we also need to give them the tools to make it easier,” said BWSC Chief Engineer John Sullivan. “By amortizing the cost, we are helping customers solve the problem for about $100 a month. That has really broken down the primary barrier to participation. The response has been encouraging.”