Jackie Dana on June 2, 2016 1 Comment Table of Contents What Is Lead? Why Is Lead Considered A Health Risk? The Risks to Children & Pregnant Women How Does Lead Get Into Drinking Water? What Happened In Flint & Should You Be Worried? Measures in Place to Reduce the Risk of Lead Exposure What You Can Do To Protect Yourself & Your Family Recent news in Flint, Michigan has been tragic and frustrating. Due to a change in the source of city water supplies, residential drinking water suddenly contained high levels of lead. Because lead poisoning can lead to a number of health issues, particularly for young children, it’s worthwhile to examine the issue of lead in our drinking water. In this article, we’ll explore what lead is, what the risks this heavy metal pose to our health, how it can get into our drinking water in the first place, and what you can do to protect yourself and your family from lead exposure. What is Lead? Lead is a toxic element that can be found throughout our environment. It used to be an ingredient in gasoline and paint, though both uses were banned many years ago. Properties of Lead: Symbol Pb (Plumbum) Atomic Number 82 Liquid Density 10.66 g/cm³ Melting Point 621°F (327°C) Boiling Point 3,180°F (1,749°C) Learn More EPA, CDC, NIH, WHO Although it gets a lot of media attention, drinking water is not a significant source for lead exposure, but it continues to be a concern for some homeowners and in some cities. In older homes, peeling paint is one of the most common sources of lead exposure, and paint in these houses should be tested if children live in the home. It also sometimes shows up in glassware, housewares and ceramics, particularly items imported from other countries. Why Is Lead Considered A Health Risk? Experts consider lead so toxic that there is no safe level of exposure. Unlike many elements, such as copper and zinc, this heavy metal offers absolutely no benefit to human health. Ongoing environmental exposure to lead may damage organs, harm the nervous and reproductive systems, or even cause anemia. In pregnant women, infants and young children, exposure may cause a number of health issues, as we’ll explain further down below. In extreme cases, lead poisoning may even be fatal. The good news is that most people in the United States will never have to worry about being exposed to harmful levels of lead. The Centers for Disease Control note that for most adults, drinking contaminated water alone is not enough to cause health issues, and other experts suggest showering or bathing in lead-contaminated water is not sufficient exposure to increase lead levels in the body. The EPA will take action when measurements show a lead content of 15 parts per billion (ppb) in water supplies. Even at that level, adults in good health have little to worry about. Nevertheless, this is not a contaminant that you should be take lightly. The Risks to Children and Pregnant Women Lead exposure presents the greatest risks to pregnant women and children. Exposure to high levels of lead during pregnancy has been shown to contribute to birth defects, reduced growth of the fetus or other complications. This heavy metal can also be transmitted to an infant through breast milk. In children, lead poisoning may cause developmental or learning disabilities, behavioral issues, anemia, mental retardation, or hearing loss. Some children exposed to lead may demonstrate flu-like symptoms such as vomiting, fatigue, constipation, and sleep disruptions. As with adults, sufficient exposure to this heavy metal can be fatal. One of the biggest problems with lead is that it’s stored in the body long after the initial exposure. This dangerous heavy metal can end up in a child’s brain, organs and in their bones. There is no cure, and doctors have no way to remove it once it is in a child’s system. If you suspect your child may have been exposed to lead either in drinking water or elsewhere, you should take him or her to your family doctor for a blood test. You can also contact your city or state Department of Health for further information and advice. How Does Lead Get Into Drinking Water? While it’s possible for lead contamination to originate at a water treatment facility, it’s far more likely to enter our water from our household plumbing. Unlike most contaminants (bacteria, chlorine, other heavy metals, etc.) that are removed by the municipal water supply, lead is something each homeowner and renter needs to watch out for, and take action as soon as a problem is detected. Common sources of it in our drinking water are primarily from older pipes, fixtures and faucets made from lead or brass, or plumbing soldered using lead solder. Homes constructed prior to 1986 are more likely to have plumbing and fixtures that contain this metal. Older pipes are more likely to leach lead, and it can build up in water that has been sitting in pipes for a while. For homes that use well water, this heavy metal can also come from the brass fittings on some pumping systems or leach through the surrounding land, sometimes from industrial pollution, and find its way into groundwater. It must be noted, however, that you can have lead pipes or fittings in your home, but never be affected by worrisome levels in your water. Lead generally only becomes a problem when the quality of water changes or deteriorates, or when the water source or treatment protocol is altered. In some cases, this water becomes corrosive by turning acidic (testing at a pH less than 7) and containing a low amount of calcium carbonate. Corrosive water then can dissolve lead from the surrounding plumbing. Soft water contains fewer dissolved minerals like magnesium or calcium, making it more corrosive, and hot water is more corrosive than cold water. However, these are just rules of thumb, as water can contain high levels of lead regardless of its composition or duration spent in the plumbing. Most municipalities protect citizens from lead by increasing the pH of the water and adding chemicals to the water that produce protective coatings inside the plumbing. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires cities to provide corrosion control. What happened in Flint, MI? Do other people need to worry? Flint, Michigan made news with high levels of lead in drinking water throughout the city. As explained above, the lead entered the residents’ drinking water from their own plumbing. The reason why the problem has been so widespread has to do with the way the water was treated. Until recently, the water in Flint came from Lake Huron and the Detroit River. Because they were trying to cut costs, the city management decided to switch the city’s water source to the Flint River. Widely considered to be a poor water source due to industrial pollution, the water from the Flint River was much more corrosive than the previous source, and the water treatment plant did not add the chemical orthophosphate to the water. This chemical allows water to build scale inside pipes, which prevents corrosion and protects the water. The combination of more corrosive water and no preventative additive meant lead leached from many homes’ plumbing into household drinking water. Tragically, because of this change in water source and treatment, as many as 12,000 children in the Flint area were exposed to lead in the water and may now have dangerous levels in their bodies. Because of the large numbers of people affected, the city furthermore experienced significant water shortages as bottled water and other new sources had to be brought into the city for the residents to drink. Flint fixed the problem with water treatment in December 2015, but no one knows for sure how long it will take to build up sufficient coating in the pipes to make the water safe to drink. While other communities with older plumbing systems could experience the same problem in the future, most cities have strict monitoring and water treatment practices in place. New awareness of the problem should also put other urban areas on alert so it won’t happen again. If you would like to donate or help the residents of Flint, please check out these two organizations — HelpForFlint.com or The United Way of Genessee County. Measures in Place to Reduce the Risk of Lead in Our Water Supply In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. Under this law, the EPA set maximum contaminant level goals for each contaminant that can be found in water. Because of the toxic nature of lead, the maximum level is zero. This heavy metal becomes an issue when measurement of lead in water reaches certain unsafe levels for a community, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends preventative actions if children demonstrate high levels based on standard blood tests. What You Can Do To Protect Yourself & Your Family You cannot smell, taste, or see lead dissolved in water. If you see green rings around your basins, detect odd metallic taste in your water, or have leaks or other evidence of breaking pipes and corrosion, it would be wise to get your water tested. If you think you might have an issue with lead, contact your local health department or municipal water service. They can connect you with companies that provide testing — which usually runs between $20-$100 — as well as provide other useful information. It’s also a good idea to report it to the water supplier in case there are similar reports. If you are using well water, contact the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791. In the meantime, if you have any concerns about your water, here are a few other tips: Click Here to Shop for Reverse-Osmosis Systems Flush Your Pipes: The longer water sits in your pipes, the more likely it can pick up the metal. While it may seem wasteful, it’s recommended that you run the water for a minute or two, especially first thing in the morning. Use Cold Water: Never use water from the hot water tap for drinking water or cooking. This is because hot water is significantly more likely to leach lead. Boiling Water: Unfortunately, boiling water will not reduce the levels of lead in the water. Water Filteration: Use water filters certified to remove lead. Reverse osmosis units and activated alumina filters can remove lead from water. These should be attached under the kitchen sink. Note that these can only filter a few gallons a day. Consider Installing an Acid-Neutralizing Filter: These are expensive units but can significantly reduce water corrosivity by attaching to the main water line. These filters add calcium to coat the pipes and they also increase the pH of the water, making it less acidic and corrosive. Be Cautious About Trusting Countertop Filtration Units: While they work great for many contaminants in water, most stand-alone or pitcher filtration units do not safely remove lead from drinking water. When In Doubt: Use bottled water for drinking, cooking and bathing. This is especially important when preparing baby formula. With these tips, we hope you better understand the risks involved with lead and drinking water. Most people will never have to worry about this problem, but it’s important to stay informed and know how to deal with the problem if you ever need to do so.