As the water crisis in Flint, Mich., stokes concerns about lead in drinking supplies nationwide, water officials in Philadelphia wanted to make something clear Monday: Philly is not Flint.
Lead is rarely found in drinking water here, officials said at an investigatory hearing of City Council. In cases where children were found to have lead exposure, drinking water was not the culprit, officials said.
But Council members still pressed water and health officials to do more to address the estimated 50,000 homes that are connected to city water mains by lead pipes, saying even trace amounts of lead are too much.
"I understand your point, that the majority of homes are coming through with a lot of clearance," said Councilwoman Helen Gym, who called the hearing. "But I am interested in what's happening with the homes that are not doing that and are registering . . . unsafe levels."
The focus on Philadelphia's drinking water comes as lawmakers and public officials in Michigan work to address dangerously contaminated drinking water in Flint. The problems there arose after the city began using the Flint River as a drinking source in 2014 and failed to put a corrosion control system in place, allowing lead from aging pipes to enter the system.
National health advocates have accused Philadelphia and other cities of using antiquated testing methods that underestimate the amount of lead in the city's water. While a Water Department official has acknowledged the methods are outdated, he said it is no cause for concern.
Water Department Commissioner Debra McCarty on Monday testified that Philadelphia drinking water is lead-free when it enters homes. To keep it safe in cases where homes have lead pipes, she said, the city treats water with chemicals that control corrosion.
McCarty added that lead pipes are not necessarily unsafe. She said only water that has sat in those pipes for several hours poses a danger, and flushing the water for a few minutes solves the problem.
McCarty said her own home has lead pipes. "I do feel safe," she said. "I run my faucet in the morning and drink the cold water."
But several members of Council questioned whether the city is doing enough to reach consumers who might not know about the importance of flushing water from lead pipes. They called for the Water Department to be more proactive and target outreach to neighborhoods where lead pipes are a known concern.
"We don't expect everyone to go door to door to door," Gym said. "It can be robocalls, it can be mass letters mailed to these houses. ... As we're working to improve our understanding of how to both educate and do public awareness campaigns, there are some well-known tools we can use."
McCarty said the Water Department's approach has been more widespread, such as putting fliers in water bills. But she said the city's efforts could be more robust.
For example, she said, the Water Department last year sent 8,000 letters recruiting owners of homes built before the 1950s to take part in a lead sampling program. Just 134 participated, more than a third of whom were Water Department employees.
McCarty said in 2017, the department plans to offer a financial incentive to participants in the form of a credit on the user's account.