Lead-contaminated water became a national crisis last year in Flint, Michigan. Families living in the town could not even drink the water in their homes and many faced serious health problems from months of lead exposure.
No amount of lead is safe to consume, and several of the problems in Flint are also affecting other areas across the U.S.
For many Americans, the situation in Flint has not only disturbed them but also prompted the question: “If lead is in Flint’s water, could it also be in mine?”
How can lead get in my water?
Lead can enter water (“leach”) when water flows through plumbing containing lead. Over time, water dissolves or breaks down (“corrodes”) the metals of the plumbing. Water can be more or less corrosive depending on its pH and mineral content. Water warmth, the length of time that water lingers in pipes between tap uses, and pipe age also affect the amount of lead that accumulates.
The severe lead contamination in Flint, Michigan happened due to extremely corrosive water from Flint River. Left untreated, the water corroded aging lead pipes throughout the city. The situation was rare, but towns across the country share some of Flint’s challenges.
Lead entering water from public pipes is unusual because utilities are required to control water chemistry. However, lead can also enter your water from pipes in your home. Homes built before 1986 are most apt to contain some lead in their plumbing. Common sources of lead are faucets, interior pipes, the solder connecting pipes, and service lines. Service lines are the pipes that connect homes to the main water pipes in the street.
How can I tell if there’s lead in my water?
You can’t see, taste, or smell lead in water. Testing it is the only way to find out if there is lead present in your water.
You can ask your local and state drinking water authorities about certified laboratories. Some states offer free home testing programs. Laboratories sometimes provide testing kits, or you can buy a kit at many hardware stores. Testing can cost between about $20-80.
What are the signs that I have lead in my body?
Lead can impact almost every organ in the body, with symptoms ranging from effect on appetite to brain function. In the most severe cases, there can be neurological damage and even death in both children and adults. Even if symptoms are difficult to identify, lead is dangerous to consume.
In children, lead can create: developmental delays, trouble learning, and even long-term lowered IQ. Other symptoms may include decreased hearing and balance, irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, stomach pain, vomiting, constipation, seizures, and pica (eating things that aren’t food). Lead has also been linked to autism in children.
In adults, symptoms may include: mood disorders, difficulties with memory or concentration, headaches, abdominal pain, high blood pressure, or joint and muscle pain. For men, it can cause reduced sperm count or abnormal sperm. For pregnant women, lead can prompt miscarriages, stillbirth or premature birth.
If you’re concerned about lead poisoning, you can get a physical exam and blood test from a physician. This is mandatory for children from 1-2 years old and is useful for adults who believe they may be at risk.
Your doctor can give you information about treatment for lead poisoning symptoms. Some oral treatments are available, but none can reverse the cognitive impairments.
You can’t see, taste, or smell lead in water.
Aren’t there laws that prevent lead in drinking water?
Yes, but they do not guarantee that there is no lead in school water. The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) requires utilities to test some taps in each water system, which can include schools.
There is no federal law specifically requiring testing of drinking water in schools that receive water from public water systems ., This means that about 90% of schools may be used as a sampling location (i.e., tap) for a public water system’s lead testing required under SDWA, but there are no federal requirements for more extensive testing. Schools that do have their own water supplies are subject to more thorough regulation and sampling.
States and towns/cities may also establish their own programs for testing drinking water lead levels in schools. Several, including Illinois and New Jersey, have implemented state-wide testing since Flint, Michigan’s crisis began. In Seattle, all schools must be tested every three years. Meanwhile, certain school districts, such as Newton Public Schools in Massachusetts, discover lead as a result of their own testing programs.
Massachusetts is one state that must improve its testing standards. Each public water system must include samples from at least two schools or early education care centers per district in their testing. Depending on system water quality, these samples may be taken as infrequently as every three years. There can be several sampling periods between tests at each school. This has allowed lead to enter schools’ water unnoticed, as evidenced by the state’s 2016 testing assistance program.
Who is at highest risk from lead in drinking water?
People with houses built before 1986 are most likely to be exposed to lead in water.
Infants and young children are at high risk because they absorb lead more easily than adults and therefore can experience serious long-term effects.
Pregnant women can also experience serious effects of lead. As mentioned above, miscarriages, stillbirths, and premature births are all possible results of lead exposure.
How can I be safer if lead is in my water? Is it safe to take showers?
First, you can make the water from your taps safer. Run your taps for several minutes before using them each time. This flushes out water that has sat still in pipes and collected lead. Run only cold water through your tap, and only drink or cook with water that comes out of the tap cold. Water that comes out of the tap warm or hot can contain much higher levels of lead.
CAUTION: Do not boil tap water. Boiling water will actually increase the lead concentration as liquid water becomes steam.
If lead levels are very high, you can reduce your exposure by drinking only bottled or filtered water. If you buy a filter, make sure that it is certified by an independent testing organization, such as the National Sanitation Foundation.
Showering and washing hands in water containing lead are generally considered safe. This is because lead cannot enter your body through skin.
Who can I talk to if I have lead in my water?
If your home has high lead levels or if a blood test confirms that you have lead poisoning, call your local and state health and water departments.
You can also contact the EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791 to report information and ask questions.
Don’t laws prevent lead in drinking water?
Yes, but the testing required by law does not guarantee that there is no lead in your water. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires utilities to test customers’ taps. If more than 10% of samples show lead levels of 15 parts per billion (ppb) or above, they must fix the problem and notify the public. Utilities publish yearly water quality reports with lead information, called Consumer Confidence Reports.
The testing does not however mean your water is safe, as only a small percentage of taps must be tested each year. In a water system serving more than 100,000 people, utilities test as few as 100 taps. Tests focus on older buildings and those with known lead service lines, but they can miss some. Also, even houses without lead service lines can contain interior plumbing with lead.
How much of a problem is lead in drinking water in the U.S.?
Lead in drinking water is a widespread problem in homes, businesses, and schools. There were over 5,300 water systems across the U.S. in 2015 with lead levels above EPA standards. This exposes 18 million Americans to contaminated water. Reports show that over 1,000 of these water systems did not notify the public about the problem. At least 600 had lead levels of 40+ppb, more than double EPA standards.
There are likely many more lead violations than the data shows. Utilities may use test methods, like pre-flushing taps, that alter the accuracy of test results. Also, violations are not always reported to the EPA. Surprisingly, even Flint is not included in the EPA’s database of violations.
Lack of enforcement allows this to continue. Out of over 8,000 violations in 2015, 88.8% went free from any formal enforcement action by states or the EPA. Penalties were not sought or assessed for 97% of violations. The case in Flint was so severe that several city officials were criminally charged, the regional EPA director stepped down, and more than 450 lawsuits were filed, but Flint remains an outlier.
Where can I get more information?
- Centers for Disease Control Lead Information
- US Environmental Protection Agency Lead Information
- The US EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791)
- Your city/town and state health and water departments
Events in Flint, Michigan showed how important it is to be aware of what is in your water. Investigating your home and surroundings is crucial for health and safety. There are concrete steps that you can take to reduce your risk.
The best way to be in control of your water safety is to stay informed. See the resources above, learn how to test your own water for lead (JEN), and stay on top of the latest water issues by joining our newsletter.