National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week—Lead-Free Kids for a Healthy Future

lead-free-kids-for-a-healthy-futureOctober 23-29 is National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week 2016. Established in 1999 by the U.S. Senate, National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week (NLPPW) occurs every year during the last week in October and is now supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the World Health Organization (WHO).  This year’s NLPPW theme of “Lead-Free Kids for a Healthy Future” underscores the importance of protecting our future by educating the public about the dangers and sources of lead poisoning and what can be done to prevent it. While lead-based paint is arguably the most common and hazardous source of lead exposure for young children, lead-contaminated drinking water has recently come under heavy scrutiny as an additional and very serious source of lead poisoning.

Siddhartha Roy / FlintWaterStudy.org
Siddhartha Roy / FlintWaterStudy.org

Lead contamination in drinking water has long been a problem, but it is now receiving the attention it deserves as a direct result of the catastrophe that took place in Flint, Michigan earlier this year. When Flint switched its water supply from Detroit to the Flint River, proper corrosion control measures were not implemented. The river water corroded old lead pipes, leaching lead into the drinking water. As a result, it is estimated that six to twelve thousand Flint children have been exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water. But they are not alone. In the United States, over 500,000 children have elevated lead levels in their blood, and it is estimated that between seven and ten million American homes still receive their drinking water from lead service lines. In addition, many homes constructed prior to 1986 also have lead in their faucets, fixtures, and solder.

While elevated lead levels in the blood stream cause health issues at any age, these problems are most significant in young children under the age of six whose brains are still developing. Some of the health concerns associated with lead exposure are as follows:

  • Decreased IQ
  • Slowed growth
  • Inability to pay attention, hyperactivity, and ADHD
  • Learning disabilities and developmental delay
  • Anemia
  • Tooth decay
  • Decreased bone and muscle growth and poor muscle condition
  • Damage to the nervous system, kidneys, and/or hearing
  • Speech and language problems

lead_spotlight2Lead in drinking water cannot be detected through taste or smell, and the only way to know for certain if your drinking water has elevated lead levels is to have your water professionally tested. Typically, lead pipes are found in homes that were built prior to 1986 and in older cities. Older homes with private wells are also at risk of having lead in drinking water. While complete removal of all lead service lines, pipes, faucets, and fixtures is the most effective way to bring lead to safe levels in drinking water, it can also be prohibitively expensive. Therefore, the EPA has recommended the following steps to reduce lead in your drinking water:

  • Call your water provider to learn about the lead levels in your system’s drinking water, and to find out if the pipe that connects your home to the water main (e.g. the service line) is made from lead.
  • Use only cold water for drinking, cooking, and making baby formula.
  • Remember, boiling water does not remove lead from water.
  • Run water for 30 seconds to two minutes before drinking it, especially if you have not used your water for a few hours.
  • Regularly clean your faucet’s screen (also known as an aerator).
  • If you use a filter certified to remove lead, don’t forget to read the directions to learn when to change the cartridge. Using a filter after it has expired can make it less effective at removing lead.

During NLPPW, many participating communities and organizations offer educational and awareness events as well as free blood tests. For information on NLPPW events, contact your local health department, which can be found here. While lead poisoning is a serious concern for everyone, young children are most at risk, which is why NLPPW 2016 is focusing on our nation’s children. Through public education, investing in infrastructure, and best practices, together we can ensure that our nation has “Lead Free Kids for a Healthy Future.”

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Back to School – Lead in Drinking Water of America's Schools

Milford Water Company water main installation; design, construction administration, and resident observation by Tata & Howard
Milford Water Company water main installation; design, construction administration, and resident observation by Tata & Howard

By now, everyone has heard of the water crisis that occurred in Flint, Michigan when the City switched the source of its municipal water from the Detroit system to the Flint River in an effort to cut costs. Anti-corrosion chemicals were not added to the water, allowing lead to leach from the City’s aging pipes into the water supply. In the aftermath, hundreds of children suffered lead poisoning, officials were fired, arrests were made, and lawsuits were filed. And while the Flint disaster was arguably terrible and tragic, it has brought much-needed attention to the state of our nation’s infrastructure, and the criticality of maintaining and improving it.
Lead Service Lines in the United States
There are an estimated six million lead pipes remaining in use in the United States, utilized by over 11,000 water systems that serve nearly 22 million Americans, yet there is no federal plan in place to replace these lead service lines. Why? First, it would cost an exorbitant amount of money — roughly $30 billion — to replace every single remaining lead service line, money that utilities simply do not have. With failing infrastructure, dwindling budgets, more stringent regulatory requirements, and increased demand, utilities are doing everything they can simply to maintain service and compliance. To mitigate lead in drinking water, utilities that are unable to dig up all their lead service lines are instead treating water so that it forms a coating on the interior of the pipes. This coating serves as a protective barrier between the water and the lead pipes, preventing lead from leaching into the water supply. This methodology requires extreme vigilance, as water chemistry often changes, which can cause corrosion controls to fail. Fortunately, utilities regularly test their water for lead contamination, and on February 29, 2016, the EPA changed testing regulations to more accurately reflect the amount of lead in drinking water.
Lead in the Drinking Water of Public Schools
child_drinking_water_fountainWhile utilities are working diligently to keep our nation’s water lead-free, public schools have recently come under fire, as schools from cities across the nation — including Boston, Massachusetts; Ithaca, New York; Portland, Oregon; and Tacoma, Washington — have found lead in their drinking water above the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion. Surprisingly, this contamination is the result of a legal loophole that many states are looking to close: schools are mandated by the EPA to be connected to a water supply that is regularly tested for lead and other contaminants; however, these utilities are not typically required to actually test the water inside the schools themselves. Considering that the average age of a school in the United States is 44 years old, it should come as no surprise that there are elevated levels of lead in the drinking water of public schools. After all, lead pipes were legal until about 30 years ago, and faucets and fixtures were allowed to contain up to 8% lead until 2014.
Lead poisoning is particularly detrimental to school-aged children, and public outcry — largely as a result of Flint’s crisis — has spurred many schools to voluntarily test their water. The findings have been shocking to parents and educators, as school across the nation, from Maine to Washington state, are reporting lead levels above the EPA’s action level. Every day, another news story crops up with a report on elevated lead in a county’s school system, and it becomes apparent that our nation has a serious problem on its hands. Just as with water utilities, the ideal solution would be to replace all the lead pipes and fixtures in our nation’s schools, but again, funding for large-scale replacement just isn’t available. Instead, many schools have turned to lead filters, which work extremely well when maintained regularly.
Looking Ahead
water_test_leadMany states have introduced legislation this year that would require public schools to regularly test their water. Bills on the table in Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Rhode Island would require regular testing, as would a New York bill that takes it one step further by providing funding for said testing. In addition, the New York bill would require schools to notify parents and to provide an alternate supply of safe drinking water to students if elevated lead levels are found. In Massachusetts, all community water systems are required by Massachusetts drinking water regulations to collect lead and copper samples from at least two schools or early education and care program facilities that they serve in each sampling period, when they collect their Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) samples. In addition, in April of 2016, it was announced that $2 million from the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust (MCWT) will fund cooperative efforts to help Massachusetts public schools test for lead and copper in drinking water. The funds, to be used by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), will provide technical assistance to ensure that public school districts can sample the taps and water fountains in their schools, and to identify any results that show lead and copper contamination over the action level. On a federal level, legislation has been introduced to Congress that would requires states to assist schools with testing for lead; however, it does not provide funding.
In Conclusion
As long as lead service lines and plumbing remain in use in our nation, there remains a risk of lead contamination of our drinking water. Utilities, states, and schools are doing what they can to limit this risk as much as possible, but the only fail safe solution is full replacement of all lead service lines and fixtures — a massive undertaking that will require significant capital investment that is not currently available. Therefore, it is imperative that utilities and schools continue to remain vigilant about testing for and mitigating lead in drinking water, even after the public outcry from Flint has faded.
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Back to School – Lead in Drinking Water of America’s Schools

Milford Water Company water main installation; design, construction administration, and resident observation by Tata & Howard
Milford Water Company water main installation; design, construction administration, and resident observation by Tata & Howard

By now, everyone has heard of the water crisis that occurred in Flint, Michigan when the City switched the source of its municipal water from the Detroit system to the Flint River in an effort to cut costs. Anti-corrosion chemicals were not added to the water, allowing lead to leach from the City’s aging pipes into the water supply. In the aftermath, hundreds of children suffered lead poisoning, officials were fired, arrests were made, and lawsuits were filed. And while the Flint disaster was arguably terrible and tragic, it has brought much-needed attention to the state of our nation’s infrastructure, and the criticality of maintaining and improving it.

Lead Service Lines in the United States

There are an estimated six million lead pipes remaining in use in the United States, utilized by over 11,000 water systems that serve nearly 22 million Americans, yet there is no federal plan in place to replace these lead service lines. Why? First, it would cost an exorbitant amount of money — roughly $30 billion — to replace every single remaining lead service line, money that utilities simply do not have. With failing infrastructure, dwindling budgets, more stringent regulatory requirements, and increased demand, utilities are doing everything they can simply to maintain service and compliance. To mitigate lead in drinking water, utilities that are unable to dig up all their lead service lines are instead treating water so that it forms a coating on the interior of the pipes. This coating serves as a protective barrier between the water and the lead pipes, preventing lead from leaching into the water supply. This methodology requires extreme vigilance, as water chemistry often changes, which can cause corrosion controls to fail. Fortunately, utilities regularly test their water for lead contamination, and on February 29, 2016, the EPA changed testing regulations to more accurately reflect the amount of lead in drinking water.

Lead in the Drinking Water of Public Schools

child_drinking_water_fountainWhile utilities are working diligently to keep our nation’s water lead-free, public schools have recently come under fire, as schools from cities across the nation — including Boston, Massachusetts; Ithaca, New York; Portland, Oregon; and Tacoma, Washington — have found lead in their drinking water above the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion. Surprisingly, this contamination is the result of a legal loophole that many states are looking to close: schools are mandated by the EPA to be connected to a water supply that is regularly tested for lead and other contaminants; however, these utilities are not typically required to actually test the water inside the schools themselves. Considering that the average age of a school in the United States is 44 years old, it should come as no surprise that there are elevated levels of lead in the drinking water of public schools. After all, lead pipes were legal until about 30 years ago, and faucets and fixtures were allowed to contain up to 8% lead until 2014.

Lead poisoning is particularly detrimental to school-aged children, and public outcry — largely as a result of Flint’s crisis — has spurred many schools to voluntarily test their water. The findings have been shocking to parents and educators, as school across the nation, from Maine to Washington state, are reporting lead levels above the EPA’s action level. Every day, another news story crops up with a report on elevated lead in a county’s school system, and it becomes apparent that our nation has a serious problem on its hands. Just as with water utilities, the ideal solution would be to replace all the lead pipes and fixtures in our nation’s schools, but again, funding for large-scale replacement just isn’t available. Instead, many schools have turned to lead filters, which work extremely well when maintained regularly.

Looking Ahead

water_test_leadMany states have introduced legislation this year that would require public schools to regularly test their water. Bills on the table in Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Rhode Island would require regular testing, as would a New York bill that takes it one step further by providing funding for said testing. In addition, the New York bill would require schools to notify parents and to provide an alternate supply of safe drinking water to students if elevated lead levels are found. In Massachusetts, all community water systems are required by Massachusetts drinking water regulations to collect lead and copper samples from at least two schools or early education and care program facilities that they serve in each sampling period, when they collect their Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) samples. In addition, in April of 2016, it was announced that $2 million from the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust (MCWT) will fund cooperative efforts to help Massachusetts public schools test for lead and copper in drinking water. The funds, to be used by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), will provide technical assistance to ensure that public school districts can sample the taps and water fountains in their schools, and to identify any results that show lead and copper contamination over the action level. On a federal level, legislation has been introduced to Congress that would requires states to assist schools with testing for lead; however, it does not provide funding.

In Conclusion

As long as lead service lines and plumbing remain in use in our nation, there remains a risk of lead contamination of our drinking water. Utilities, states, and schools are doing what they can to limit this risk as much as possible, but the only fail safe solution is full replacement of all lead service lines and fixtures — a massive undertaking that will require significant capital investment that is not currently available. Therefore, it is imperative that utilities and schools continue to remain vigilant about testing for and mitigating lead in drinking water, even after the public outcry from Flint has faded.

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Water Crisis in the United States, Part 3: Lead in Drinking Water

24234972202_550138a446_o-300x202Part three of our four-part series on water crises in America is on lead contamination. Instances of lead in drinking water, such as the situation in Flint, Michigan, have become a hot topic in the media. Lead in drinking water is a problem that reaches far beyond the disaster in Flint, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stating that roughly 10 million American homes and buildings still receive water from service lines that are at least partially lead. When water has high acidity or low mineral content, it can cause these service lines to corrode and leach lead into the water supply. Without mitigation, water from lead service lines has the potential to cause adverse health effects, particularly in children.

The EPA states that, in the last three years, only nine U.S. states are reporting safe levels of lead in their drinking water. These include Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Tennessee. This means that 41 states are consistently reporting higher than acceptable levels of lead in their drinking water. The problem is not only the lead service lines connecting water mains to homes and buildings, but also the lack of proper treatment to prevent corrosion of these lead pipes.

History of Lead Pipes in the U.S.

Residents of Flint, Lead solder holding pipes together can also contaminate the water that passes through your system.
Lead solder holding pipes together can also contaminate the water that passes through your system.

The use of lead pipes for water distribution has a centuries-old history. In the U.S., installation of lead pipes on a major scale began in the late 1800s, particularly in the larger cities. At one point, more than 70% of cities with populations greater than 30,000 used lead water lines. Lead pipes had two significant advantages over iron: they lasted almost twice as long and they were malleable enough to easily bend around existing structures. Of course, now we see the health risks associated with lead, and water systems across the country have taken steps to eliminate lead pipes in their distribution systems. Water companies and municipalities now must decide whether to replace all the lead pipe in their drinking water system, including home service lines on private property, or continue to add corrosion-control chemicals at the plant to prevent leaching of lead into the water supply.

Utilities and the Government Take Action

Water companies and municipalities across the country are working diligently to get lead out of our drinking water. Since replacing all of our nation’s lead piping may take over 20 years, utilities have found a short term solution to control the amount of lead in their drinking water. They are focusing on the treatment process and monitoring what makes up the drinking water. Introducing orthophosphates to the water supply and flushing all the standing water creates a scale of protective coating on the interior surfaces of lead pipes, reducing corrosion. This limits the amount of lead that leaches into the water and offers a short term solution as we figure out how to permanently replace all lead pipes from our water distribution systems.

Limescale-in-pipe-300x259
Orthophosphates added to treated drinking water has created a protective coating on the interior surface of this lead pipe.

In Wisconsin, the Madison Water Utility has become a national model for cities struggling with lead in their drinking water. They are the first major utility in the nation to demonstrate that a full replacement of both the public and the private portions of lead service lines is possible. This involved working with residents to remove lead service lines from their homes and nearby property. The project started in 2001 and has provided safe drinking water to 5,600 property owners. The plan, which was very controversial at the time, is now hailed as a model and has spurred other utilities into action. For example, Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC) implemented a program that offers a credit of up to $2,000 and interest-free loans to assist homeowners who are willing to remove lead pipes on their property. BWSC also has a searchable online database for homeowners to see if their property has a lead service line.  Also, the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA) announced earlier this year that it will provide $100 million to its member water communities to fully replace lead service lines, including residential lines. These utilities are shining examples of the many organizations taking a long term approach to this national crisis.

Recent news reports of lead in drinking water and the controversy surrounding testing methodologies have acted as a catalyst for public schools across the country to test their water. Unfortunately, many of these tests indicate high, potentially dangerous, levels of lead concentrations in public drinking fountains, sparking outcry from parents and prompting a series of public meetings. In response, the EPA changed lead testing regulations on February 29, 2016 and now require utilities to use wide mouth bottles, conduct no pre-stagnation flush, and to run faucets at typical flow rates when testing for lead — precisely the opposite of how testing had previously been conducted. While many people have been quick to blame utilities for lead in their drinking water and have even gone so far to suggest that utilities have been practicing testing “cheats,” they were in actuality following protocol issued by EPA.

The EPA is also considering changes to the Safe Drinking Water Act’s rules regarding lead, and an advisory panel has proposed a more proactive approach to replacing lead pipes. The proposal would encourage public water systems to replace lead pipes versus waiting for lead levels to spike to take action. This plan involves substantial increases in funding to water companies and municipalities for the replacement of lead pipes in both the public and the private portions of lead service lines, including residential lines. With this additional funding, water utilities across the country will be able to set goals for a permanent solution to our nation’s lead crisis. Admittedly, we have a long road ahead of us as many cities simply do not know the exact number or location of lead pipes in their system. Add to that the cost and person power required to replace our nation’s lead service lines, and it becomes apparent that a 100% lead-free infrastructure is still many years away.

What Can You Do?

When water sits stagnant in lead service lines for even a few hours, it picks up lead from the pipe, which can make using your faucet hazardous. Find out if your home is serviced by lead service lines by calling your local water department. This is especially important to homes built prior to 1980. If your home still has lead service lines, you can reduce the risk of lead contamination in your drinking water by taking some simple steps:

  • Call your State Department of Public Health for health information, or visit their website.
  • Run tap water until after the water feels cold. Flushing pipes in this way before use assures that you are not drinking water that has been sitting stagnant in pipes.
  • Never use hot water from the faucet for drinking or cooking, especially when making baby formula or food for small children. Hot water from your faucet has a higher chance of containing traces of lead. Instead, use cold water and heat it on the stove or in the microwave.

In Conclusion

Hands_in_Water_faucet-300x200

The good news is that lead contaminated water crises like the situation in Flint, Michigan have called for stricter regulations and replacement of nearly six million lead service lines nationwide. The not so good news is that we still have a long way to go to completely remove all lead in our water systems. Nearly all homes built prior to the 1980s still have lead solder connecting copper pipes, and some major U.S. cities still have 100 percent lead piping that delivers water from the utilities to homes and businesses. Replacing lead service lines is the safest way to prevent lead contamination, and public and private water companies must work together with state and national organizations to replace lead pipes in all of our water distribution systems. Solving our lead contamination crisis will benefit everyone if we work together for a permanent solution. After all, everyone deserves safe drinking water.
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