OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - A sample of an Oklahoma prison’s drinking water had more than 12 times the allowable amount of lead when it was tested last year - an amount so high that officials question whether it could really be that bad or if the test could have been misleading.
The sample taken from the Charles E. Johnson Correctional Center in Alva was unusually high, but it came from one of 30 Oklahoma water systems that have been found to have lead levels that exceeded the federally allowable limit between Jan. 1, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2015, according to an Associated Press analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data. They were among nearly 1,400 water systems throughout the country that registered excessive lead levels in that time, the analysis showed.
The ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan, where residents have been without tap water for months, has highlighted how lead-tainted water can poison children. Even low levels have been shown to affect IQ, the ability to pay attention and academic achievement. Children age 6 and under and pregnant women - whose bones pass along stored lead to infants - are considered the most vulnerable to lead, which can also damage brains, kidneys and production of red blood cells that supply oxygen.
No amount of lead exposure is considered safe, but the federal government requires all water systems to maintain lead levels below 15 parts per billion in drinking water.
The Alva prison’s sample had 182 parts per billion. Oklahoma Department of Corrections spokeswoman Terri Watkins said authorities have reason to doubt whether the reported lead levels were accurate.
“That facility was built in the early ‘90s - there are no lead pipes,” Watkins said. “The water is all purchased from the city of Alva, and the city of Alva water tested fine. There was only one location inside the prison that tested high.”
Watkins said the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality has scheduled another test of the prison’s water system, but she didn’t know the exact date.
When more than 10 percent of tap water samples in a local system contain lead levels of at least 15 parts per billion, the state steps in to review the water system’s treatment for corrosive properties and update the sampling schedule as necessary.
In a letter sent on March 31, employees of the Oklahoma Veterans Center in Talihina were informed that drinking water from the facility tested in 2014 may have been contaminated with high levels of lead. Authorities tested a sample at 97 parts per billion, which is more than six times the permissible level.
“Absolutely, we’re concerned, and that’s why we sent out the letter to warn everybody,” said Shane Faulkner, spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs. “There’s never been any type of people reporting being sick or not feeling well from the water. We’ve had nothing like that. So while we are showing precaution, it hasn’t really turned into a problem for us.”
The health effects of lead poisoning are often only apparent months or years after exposure. Although lead exposure is most harmful for children, adults can experience serious health problems after sustained exposure to lead.
For now, veterans center employees are not being told to avoid drinking the water unless they have a severely compromised immune system, Faulkner said.
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