By Michael E. Miller
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As silently as lead seeps into drinking water, warning signs have appeared all over Miami International Airport in recent weeks. Their caution: Don't drink the water. Lead contamination.
Posted above each of the airport's water fountains is a notice that reads, in part: "SOME BUILDINGS IN THIS COMMUNITY HAVE ELEVATED LEAD LEVELS IN THEIR DRINKING WATER. LEAD CAN POSE A SIGNIFICANT RISK TO YOUR HEALTH...To minimize exposure to lead in drinking water, please flush water fountains for up to two (2) minutes before drinking."
The signs went up several weeks ago, after routine tests revealed high levels of lead in nine of sixty water samples from fountains around the airport. Federal and state environmental regulations forbid more than fifteen micrograms (.015 milligrams) of lead per liter of drinking water. The nine suspect airport samples A which came from locations as diverse as the air-traffic control tower and Concourse B A showed lead contents as high as 553 micrograms per liter, nearly 37 times the acceptable level. If more than ten percent of the samples test higher than the acceptable level, regulations require the water supplier to take certain steps to address the problem.
According to Pedro Hernandez, assistant director for environmental engineering at the Metro-Dade Aviation Department, the lead tests were conducted this past November. He says he's "90 percent sure" that in the case of seven of the tests, the source of the lead contamination was in the water fountains themselves. Those seven are equipped with antiquated copper reservoirs that are sealed with lead-based solder. As the water sits in the cooling reservoir awaiting the next thirsty person, it leaches lead from the solder, Hernandez explains. The seven fountains, he adds, are models that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has listed as likely lead sources. Hernandez suspects one of the other two samples A the one that measured 553 micrograms per liter A was a "bad sample"; subsequent tests have shown no elevated lead levels. The only other problematic water fountain was located in an abandoned building that was demolished before engineers could investigate the lead source.
Lead is an insidious health threat: Continued exposure through inhalation of fumes or sprays and ingestion of food or water containing the element can result in a cumulative chronic disease known as lead poisoning. According to Dr. Eleni Sfakianaki, medical executive director of the Dade County Public Health Unit, children are most susceptible to the illness, which can affect the central nervous system, including the brain, as well as the kidneys, and the body's blood-making system. The impact depends on the level and duration of exposure, she adds.
In response to the water-sample findings, aviation department workers immediately shut off the suspect fountains. Hernandez says those fountains, plus another thirteen of similar design, are being replaced and engineers are checking drinking-water lines for lead-based solder. Federal regulations also require that notices be posted at each of the airport's several hundred drinking water fountains.
Aviation officials certainly haven't gone out of their way to clarify the issue. No media outlets were contacted, and word has been slow to travel through the Metro environmental pipeline: Both Sfakianaki and Curt Williams, chief of the airport section at the Department of Environmental Resources Management, Metro's environmental arm, didn't know about the problem until contacted by New Times this past week. The notices don't appear to be having much of an impact either; during a five minute period last week, several travelers in Concourse E sipped from the fountains, seemingly oblivious to the signs. Aviation department spokeswoman Lauren Chariff says "only a handful" of people have called an information number posted on the signs to inquire about the contamination. (It's possible travelers can't read the notices, which are in English and lack symbols for the benefit of the illiterate population.)
Not to worry, says Chariff. The population most at risk A the 30,000 workers at the airport who may drink the water over an extended period of time A has been notified of the problem through a pamphlet describing lead poisoning and ways to prevent it. "Part of the health hazard is from long-term exposure," Chariff notes. "Travelers who come through and take a sip of water are not [at risk]. It's the people who drink from the drinking water every day who we're concerned about." A state health official in charge of monitoring the aviation department's response to the lead problem reports that Metro officials have been obeying state and federal environmental regulations.
Aviation environmental engineer Pedro Hernandez says his department will submit another round of test results to the EPA in May, at which point he anticipates the lead levels will have returned to normal.
At which point, presumably, the signs will come down and it will be like nothing ever happened.