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Lead Tests Continue For Sandy Residents Spooked By Drinking Water Contamination

Photo of lead testing.
Judy Fahys / KUER
Lab tech Tryone Singer tests Sandy residents Tonya Holmstead and her daughter at Alta View Clinic.

Sandy officials and affected residents continue to grapple with important questions after a snowstorm three weeks ago caused a fluoride pump failure that led to tainted drinking water in several neighborhoods.

On Monday, Tonya Holmstead brought her daughter and a niece to Intermountain Healthcare’s Alta View Clinic in Sandy to be tested.

Her goal? “Just to double-check, just to be sure — specifically, in my young child — to make sure that our lead levels are not high, to make sure we’re healthy,” Holmstead said.

Intermountain Healthcare (IHC), in conjunction with the Salt Lake County Health Department, has been offering free blood screenings that can detect high lead levels in a matter of minutes.

Holmstead and her daughter, 9-year-old Sydney, felt sick and stayed home Feb. 5, the day of the fluoride release. They blamed their stomach symptoms on the flu, but flu symptoms can look a lot like the signs of excess fluoride ingestion.

“Back before fluoridation in Salt Lake County, kids were prescribed fluoride tablets,” said Mark Valentine, a pediatrician at Alta View. “A child would take a fluoride tablet every day, and if they took extra, they’d get a stomach ache and throw up.”

For many like Tonya Holmstead, anxiety persists weeks after the fluoride surge. They wonder: “Did the water contamination harm me or my loved ones?”

The lingering health concerns have more to do with metals, including lead, copper and arsenic. That’s because of a ripple effect from high fluoride, an additive widely used to protect dental health. Too much fluoride changes the acidity of the water inside the pipes.

The pipes — older ones especially — naturally hold a buildup of metals. And, in Sandy, the extra acidity caused some of those metals to release into the water. It’s a type of scenario similar to what happened in Flint, Michigan, a few years ago but not nearly as long in duration or as large in scope.

Image of affected area in Sandy.
Credit City of Sandy
Sandy City Mayor Kurt Bradburn has vowed to have all 2,800 homes tested for excess drinking-water contaminants in the area affected by the fluoride episode. Area residents have been visiting local clinics for rapid lead tests to make sure they weren't harmed by the Feb. 5 surge.

Here in Salt Lake County, slightly elevated lead levels have shown up in 20 of nearly 600 tests that have been run through IHC’s rapid screening machines since Saturday. Valentine said it’s too soon to say if the brief fluoride surge is to blame.

“Part of the purpose of testing is to give people peace of mind,” said Valentine. It's “also to collect information on how significant an event this really was.”

The Utah Division of Drinking Water and Sandy leaders are also still trying to understand exactly what happened and why it took so long to advise people in the affected neighborhoods of the risk.

The state officials, who ordered wide disclosure of the fluoride release, are reviewing the case.

Meanwhile, Sandy City continues its own search for answers. Mayor Kurt Bradburn has ordered all 2,800 homes in the affected area to be tested for lingering contamination. About 2,000 have been tested so far and results are being posted online.

In addition, Sandy Public Utilities Director Tom Ward has been placed on administrative leave while the city prepares for an independent investigation of the incident.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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