Why Is the Israeli Health Ministry Unconcerned About Lead in Tap Water?

Up to 15% of water samples examined following initial test on espresso machines were found to exceed accepted levels. Top ministry official says he ‘can’t be responsible for 8 million people,’ but water expert says ministry has a duty to protect the public.

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Water coming out of a tap
Water coming out of a tap (illustrative photo).Credit: Nir Shmuel

Lab tests conducted recently by the Standards Institute of Israel turned up high concentrations of lead in tap water in a number of cities throughout Israel. The results came to light while the institute was conducting tests on espresso machines.

After the Health Ministry found a high concentration of lead in some espresso machines – including the Bianchi model imported from Italy by Elite Coffee (Strauss) and Mey Eden (Pauza), and the La Favorita model manufactured in Israel, with thousands of units in coffee shop chains around the country – further tests conducted by several importers and manufacturers of the machines found a high concentration of lead in the tap water in up to 15% of the cases.

At present, it is unclear whether the source of the lead pollution is in those taps, so it isn’t possible to determine whether all the drinking water in that town or area is affected. However, a high lead content was found in the tap water of many cities – including Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem.

The tests were conducted in authorized laboratories, including the laboratory of the SIII, which is overseen by the Economy and Industry Ministry. The tests were done as part of the tests of espresso machines currently being conducted by the institute at the behest of the health and economy ministries, and of importers and manufacturers of the espresso machines.

The tests also examined the tap water that goes into the machines, to see what it contains and how much lead, if any, is added by the machine.

As reported in TheMarker last week, a significant number of tests of the water found lead concentrations several times higher than the accepted level of 10 micrograms per liter of drinking water, which is also the maximum level set by many European countries and other countries.

Testing the water

Two weeks ago, the Health Ministry caused a furor regarding the high lead concentration found in some espresso machines. Together with the Economy and Industry Ministry, it announced there was a possibility that lead was found in the water produced by various models of espresso machines. It recommended that people reduce the amount of coffee they drink from these models, and that pregnant women avoid drinking coffee made from such machines until further test results were in.

The Health Ministry explained it was being extra cautious because lead exposure can cause a range of adverse health effects, including heart disease and high blood pressure. It can adversely affect fertility, and cause physical and cognitive developmental problems in fetuses, babies and young children.

But asked by TheMarker what the ministry intends to do about the SII’s worrisome findings, the Health Ministry now says it has no plans to deal with the matter.

The ministry also maintains that it never received any information from the SII about abnormal test results, and that it has no plans to ask the institute for its results.

Prof. Itamar Grotto.Credit: Moti Milrod

The ministry’s head of public health services, Prof. Itamar Grotto, said people should get their water tested themselves if they are concerned about the lead content.

“The question of whether the lead came from the espresso machines or the taps is not the question – because we know what the state of the tap water in Israel is,” Grotto told TheMarker on Thursday. “The water supplier – the water corporation or the municipality – is responsible for the water up to where it is connected with the home. The supplier does thousands of tests a year of the public water systems, and of the 5,200 tests carried out of the public systems from 2014-2016, deviations from the norm were found in just 0.3% of cases. And it was dealt with in those places. With home plumbing, it’s impossible to see what’s happening in each and every home. But in recent years we’ve had standards, so anyone who puts in new plumbing that meets the standards should not have a problem.”

When was the last time the home supply network was tested for heavy metals like lead?

“In 2011, we did a survey in which we tested samples from 800 homes. The focus was on places with old plumbing. We found deviations from the norm in 2% of the tests, primarily in relation to hot water or water that was standing for a long time in the yard. I don’t think there’s a big problem with lead in the water in Israel.”

It’s been six years since those tests. Do you plan to conduct another test in light of the new findings?

“We aren’t going to do another test. We believe the situation could only have improved since 2011, because more new homes have been built. I don’t think the deviations in lead content found in the water going into the espresso machines necessarily indicates a problem with the tap water. The problem likely comes from the machines, which passed the lead into the tap water.”

Last Wednesday, you said you hadn’t received any results from the SII about abnormal findings regarding lead content. Have you seen those results now?

“I haven’t received them and I haven’t seen them.”

The SII said Wednesday that it sent the health and economy ministries the test results. Why haven’t you received them?

“We haven’t received them. I don’t know why.”

Do you plan to ask the SII for the test results that show a high rate of lead in tap water that exceeds the standard?

“No, I don’t see any reason to ask for that.”

Isn’t it the ministry’s responsibility to examine the matter or to inform the people affected where tests showed the water was not up to standard?

“I can’t be responsible for eight million people in Israel. The responsibility for water quality for different consumers is up to the consumers. I’m not responsible for what happens in their pipes and the plumbing inside their home. In Israel, there is no problem with lead in the water sources – and that’s what matters. If there’s a problem, it’s in the home plumbing. Just as the Electric Company is responsible for the electricity until it reaches the home, and inside the home the consumer is responsible, it’s the same with the water supplier.

“In any case, when we amended the drinking water regulations in 2013, we regulated the option for consumers to do the test themselves for their water at home. Anyone can order a test from his water supplier, who will come and take a sample of the water in the house for a fee. It costs a few dozen shekels, I don’t know the exact amount. If somebody has a test done for his home and a problem is found, he is authorized to report it to and consult with the Health Ministry.”

Tell people about the problem

Prof. Dror Avisar, head of Tel Aviv University’s Hydro-Chemistry Laboratory, finds the Health Ministry’s responses “odd and defensive.”

Prof. Dror Avisar.Credit: Alon Ron

“I don’t get why the ministry wouldn’t want to see the abnormal results that were found and see what could be done about it. It’s their duty to protect the citizens. I don’t understand the ministry’s attitude. It’s sad, and it’s a shame.”

How does lead get into our tap water in the first place?

“For many years, lead was always used in making the water pipes,” explains Avisar. “At some point, people realized this was very bad because the lead seeps into the water, and lead is dangerous for your health – so now it is prohibited to use pipes or joints that have lead in them for drinking water. However, there are still some violators who knowingly use lead, or plumbers who unwittingly use materials that contain lead.

“There are several possible sources for lead seepage,” he continues. “The first, and least likely in this case, is that the water source is polluted with lead because of industrial runoff – but that happens mostly in Third World countries. We also have the national water pipeline, and it’s highly unlikely that it would bring lead into Israel.

“Another source of lead in drinking water is the municipal plumbing, which may be old and neglected, or have old joints. It’s replaced every so often, but could still have lead joints or weldings with lead that seeped into the water.

“The most common cause of lead pollution is found in home plumbing. There are still violators who don’t follow the standards for the use of lead, and there are still homes with old plumbing with lead joints or lead weldings.”

“Also, plumbers like to use brass for pipe joints. Brass is an alloy that often contains lead. If there is lead in the brass, it can seep into the water. So even in new buildings you can find dangerous lead levels in the drinking water, because the plumber used brass joints that contain lead. The big problem today is the inability to enforce the government standards on lead.”

Abnormal rate

Avisar refutes Grotto’s assertion that the lead in the water entering the espresso machines comes from the machines themselves. “If the test showed higher lead content than permissible in the water before it goes into the machines, it means the lead came from the water that came out of the tap. The water that comes out of the machines is a different story. There should be no lead in the water that goes into the espresso machines. Now they should be checking to find out why there is lead in the tap water, and work backward to locate the source of the problem.”

He also rejects Grotto’s claim that the ministry knows the water in Israel is fine for drinking because the supplier does testing.

“The fact that the supplier does testing is not related to the findings – because the lead may have come from the plumbing. The bottom line is that it’s there, no matter where it came from.”

Avisar adds: “The Health Ministry says that in 2011, it tested the water in 800 homes and found lead levels that exceeded the standard in 2% of cases. This 2% is abnormal, and if the number of samples was increased from just 800 to 800,000, a higher rate of abnormalities may have been found.

“It’s true that new construction should prevent an increase in the rate of lead in homes – if you assume that whoever is building is complying with the standards that prohibit the use of lead. But it’s not certain that everyone is building in accordance with the standards. There are always offenders. The Health Ministry should request the test results and check if the deviations come from the local pipework or from the home plumbing. If they come from the home plumbing, it should inform the homeowners of the problem, so they can take care of it.

“The health and economy ministries should commit to testing the entry water of the espresso machines and not just the exit water, to find out the source of the pollution,” says Avisar. “If they find lead in the entry water, they should check whether it comes from the piping of that building – as is usually the case – or if it’s a problem of the water from the whole area.

“In any case, these findings are cause for concern, and call for further investigation.”

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