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How Kansas City Keeps Its Water Safe From Lead

Elle Moxley
Mike Klender, Kansas City plant manager, explains how the water treatment process works in Kansas City, Missouri.

KC Water officials say a rigorous testing protocol should keep what happened in Flint, Michigan, from happening here.

“We’re trying to make sure the water is the best we can get out of here,” says plant manager Mike Klender. “We live in the city. We drink our water.”

The ongoing crisis in Flint began when the city switched to a new water source, but Kansas City is still pumping from the source it’s relied on for 80 years: the Missouri River.

Klender says KC Water is pulling samples all the time to test for lead and other contaminants. Lab manager David Greene says water leaving the treatment facility has so little lead in it it’s practically immeasurable at 20 parts per trillion.

“When lead shows up in a home’s water, it’s usually coming from a pipe or the lead solder in that home,” Greene says. “Lead is very rarely found in source waters or coming from treatment plants like this.”

Greene’s lab pulls about 60 samples a day and runs more than 200 tests on each one. In addition to screening for lead, technicians are testing for the presence of other minerals. Some of them are good – minerals we want in our water to make it less corrosive. Over time, those minerals build up and form what’s known as “scale” on the inside of pipes.

Houses of any age can have pipes that leach, but some of the most vulnerable homes were built right before lead pipes were banned in 1986.

“Right before the ban, they were using lead solder, so they would be even more susceptible than older homes,” Green says. “An older home would have that protective scale build-up on the inside of the pipe.”

KC Water does special monitoring of houses built between 1982 and ’86. Every three years, they take a test of water that’s been sitting in the pipes for at least 24 hours to make there aren’t unsafe levels of lead or copper coming from the tap.

In general, Kansas Citians are lucky because most of the service pipes here – that’s what connects your house to the main – are made of galvanized steel or copper.

But if you’re worried about the quality of water in your home, Greene has two suggestions: run the tap for at least 30 seconds before getting a glass of water, and never cook with hot water. That’s because the first draw is the most likely to contain build-up of other contaminants, and hot water always is more corrosive than cold.

Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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