PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The historic housing stock that distinguishes Providence as one of the nation’s oldest cities is also unleashing a public health hazard from its old lead pipes and fixtures.
An analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data by The Associated Press found that Providence’s drinking water system was one of the largest in the country to exceed a federal lead standard since 2013. It has gone over the limit six times since 2010 after testing samples of the tap water used by about 300,000 people in Providence and the surrounding cities of Cranston, Johnston and North Providence.
‘‘Everything coming through the Scituate Reservoir and coming through our thousands of miles of mains is clean,’’ said Dyana Koelsch, a spokeswoman for the Providence Water Supply Board. ‘‘Our vulnerability is the lead service pipes from the public main to the curb and, even if we fix that, from the curb to private homes.’’
About 13,800 homes — 19 percent of all retail customers — are still serviced by utility-owned pipes made of lead that connect the public main line to private property, Koelsch said, and many more homes are believed to have privately owned lead pipes or fixtures. She said an aggressive $45 million campaign to replace thousands of public pipes slowed down in recent years after concerns arose that the work was making the problem worse by stirring up lead on the private portion of the line.
Lead poisoning prevention advocates have called on the state to do more to replace pipes. ‘‘Do it right, replace the whole pipe’’ has been their slogan. But the cost has deterred the state government from compensating work that would set homeowners back by about $2,500 if they do it themselves. Most don’t bother.
‘‘The answer to our lead-in-water problem is pretty straightforward. We need to get the lead out,’’ said Laura Brion, advocacy director for the Providence-based Childhood Lead Action Project. ‘‘Rhode Island politicians just need to decide that our children are worth it.’’
Providence’s tap water troubles have been overshadowed by a bigger problem with lead-based paint dust found in homes and backyard soil throughout the city and state. The state attorney general sued the paint industry to hold them responsible for the cleanup but ultimately failed in 2008 when the state’s highest court overturned the verdict.
And while health officials have emphasized that paint dust is the primary culprit in causing children to have elevated levels of lead in their blood, Providence’s tap water system has contributed to the problem and makes it stand out along with several other metropolitan districts nationwide.
AP’s analysis found that nearly 1,400 water systems serving 3.6 million Americans have reported excessive lead levels of more than 15 parts per billion at least once since Jan. 1, 2013.
Providence was one of 13 larger systems each serving more than 50,000 people to make the list. Others included the Portland Water Bureau in Oregon and the Passaic Valley Water Commission near Paterson, New Jersey. Several citywide systems in Massachusetts also repeatedly tested over the limits.
No level of lead exposure is considered safe. Water agency officials routinely advise residents to let faucets flush out for a few minutes before using tap water. But federal law requires that if more than 10 percent of sampled high-risk homes have lead above the level of 15 parts per billion, water agencies must notify customers and take further steps such as preventing the corrosion that leads to leaching of the lead.
Providence’s last time over the limit was in 2014 when the level was 16 parts per billion.
Rhode Island Department of Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken said the Providence Water Supply Board’s work on its distribution system has been helping reduce lead levels.
After reporting highs of 30 parts per billion in 2009 and 2013, officials were hopeful when the sample dropped early last year to 9 parts per billion, the lowest level since the federal government began requiring such testing in 1992. But the most recent test at the end of last year hovered at 15 parts per billion, just missing the trigger that would require corrective action.
Overall, however, Wendelken said the trend is promising. He said the percentage of sample sites with no lead detected has increased steadily since 2013 when the utility shifted the pH of its water to decrease the lead solubility.