How excessive levels of lead get into our tap water

Tap water contaminated with lead in Newark, New Jersey.

On Monday May 2, 2016, New Jersey State Governor Chris Christie held a press conference at which he announced the state will test all of its schools water systems for lead. The announcement was in response to an eye-opening joint press release by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Newark Public Schools, Wednesday March 9, 2016. The press release contained test results showing that 30 school buildings in Newark had lead levels well above the federal action limit of 15 parts per billion (ppb), the highest test level coming in at over 500 ppb. The startling results prompted further testing of the municipal water supplies that showed no elevated lead levels; suggesting the school district’s aging infrastructure is to blame. Christie added that the State will adopt more rigorous lead monitoring standards consistent with the most recent recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Currently, New Jersey relies on the previous recommendation made by the CDC. Under the old recommendation an official investigation is initiated if a child’s blood is found to have a concentration of lead that is 10 micrograms (ug) per deciliter (dL) of blood; the new recommendation initiates an investigation at just 5 micrograms. This makes New Jersey the 29th state to adopt the CDC’s stricter recommendation. Finally, the governor announced that he had found ten million dollars in the State’s budget to cover the cost of the testing and urged the State’s Legislature to approve an additional ten million to cover more immediate infrastructure upgrades.

 

Lead poisoning on tap

In America, the issue of lead in drinking water is a complicated one, and Newark is not the only municipality with troubles. According to a USA Today network report, excessive levels of lead in drinking water can be found in nearly 2,000 water systems spanning all 50 states. Furthermore, there are an estimated 7.3 million lead service lines currently in use throughout the country. However, even though there is a lot to be concerned about in the news regarding lead in drinking water, the United States has made significant progress in decreasing the country’s environmental exposure. The two most important reforms to date are: the ban of lead paint for residential use in 1978 and the phasing out of leaded gasoline throughout the 1980’s. In fact, these measures were so effective that the average amount of lead found in children’s blood between 1978 and 1994 showed an 80% improvement. While these results are very encouraging, even the CDC states there is still a lot of work to be done.

Even at low levels, lead poses a significant risk to public health. Pregnant women and young children are the most susceptible to the health effects of lead. It is known to cause irreversible damage to the kidneys as well as the nervous, reproductive and cardiovascular systems. When pregnant women are subject to lead exposure, it affects the brains of fetuses. When mixed with baby formula, lead continues to harm young children. In adults, lead poisoning can lead to high blood pressure and increased risk of cardiovascular death. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there is no known safe level of lead exposure, so it is critical that levels of lead be kept as low as possible.

 

Sources of lead in tap water

Drinking water doesn’t typically leave the water treatment facility contaminated with lead, but rather picks up toxic metals as it travels through corrosion  riddled water pipes and ultimately to the lead pipes still present in older homes. According to the EPA, a public water system in which more than 10% of water samples taken with lead levels above 15 parts per billion is what’s called “action level”, because at such high levels of lead, action must be taken to reduce contamination. However, enforcement of this policy, handled separately by each state, is inconsistent at best. Close to 400 water systems have failed testing repeatedly with further lead tests continuing to find unacceptable levels.

The most common sources of lead contamination in older homes are lead pipes and lead solder. Lead solder is a soldering technique that was popular with plumbers, primarily before 1987, to connect the water mains to household plumbing. These plumbing materials corrode into the tap water, especially in areas where the water has a high acidity level. To combat this harmful corrosion, the EPA instituted the Lead and Copper Rule as part of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). The Lead and Copper Rule requires water treatment facilities to make tap water less corrosive to the plumbing materials it comes in contact with on its way to your faucet.

Lastly, the environmental health of a community can play a role in lead contamination when a water supplier sources groundwater as part of their water supply. You can check with your local health department or water utility to learn about possible groundwater contamination in your area.

 

How to know if your home’s water system is affected

So, if you can’t alway trust your local water supplier to tell you when there may be a problem with the water quality of your home faucets, how can you find out?

While there are water quality and lead testing kits available for purchase by the public, usually, county health departments can help you test your water for bacteria, nitrates and levels of lead. If your local health department is unable to assist, you can have testing performed by a state certified laboratory.

If your home has lead piping or copper pipes with lead solder, contact your local water utility about service line replacement and any financial incentive and assistance programs that might be available.

Additionally, the team here at Clearly Filtered have a free database on our website that compiles all of the results of tests done by local water authorities in accordance with the EPA guidelines. Just enter your zip code to see the specific contaminants in your tap water, how they can affect you, and how to best protect yourself and your family.

Remember, boiling water does not remove lead. Water from the cold water line is safer than water from the hot water line, which is more likely to contain high levels of lead. Bathing or showering in hot water, even if that water is contaminated with lead, should be safe, as lead is not absorbed through human skin.

 

Mitigating the risk of lead with Clearly Filtered 

The issue of lead in schools is an extremely serious one, and we at Clearly Filtered offer our best wishes and support to all those affected by this developing situation. We also would like to applaud the state officials of New Jersey for their action on the issue. While there has been a lot of progress on this issue, even the CDC admits that there is still a long way to go. For example, amounts of lead exposure below the federal action limit are still known to be dangerous, but no one is obligated to address the presence of lead below that limit. So how can the public protect itself from this obvious gap in coverage?  First, educate yourself about your water supply. Does your water contain lead or are you traveling to an area where lead contamination is prevalent? Next, evaluate your filtration needs. The EPA and CDC do not test filters for their effectiveness against lead, so it is difficult to compare popular filters. According to Cornell University, activated carbon is the easiest means of reducing and eliminating lead from drinking water (Read Cornell’s Activated Carbon Fact Sheet here), so any filtration system that uses activated carbon should help reduce lead levels in your drinking water.

If you are worried that you or someone you know is drinking water contaminated with lead, please feel free to browse our selection of tested  premium water filters.

 


References

  1. Center for Disease Control 

  2. Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Beyond Flint: Excessive lead levels found in almost 2,000 water systems across all 50 states. (2016). Retrieved June 09, 2016, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/03/11/nearly-2000-water-systems-fail-lead-tests/81220466/

  4. Susan K. Livio and Claude Brodesser-Akner | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com. (2016). Christie: All N.J. school water fountains to be tested for lead. Retrieved June 09, 2016, from http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/05/christie_all_school_water_fountains_to_be_tested.html

  5. CDC’s Lead Fact Webpage

  6. Newark, New Jersey School Districts Water Quality Testing Results

  7. CDC Fact Sheet for the Reduction of Blood Lead Levels in Children

  8. EPA & HUD Fact Sheet on Lead in Homes

  9. Cornell University Fact Sheet Activated on Activated Carbon