How to Tell if Your Water is Contaminated with Lead
There is so much lead in the drinking water consumed in Flint, Michigan that the mayor has declared a state of emergency.
The problem is particularly serious for kids. A study conducted by the Hurley Medical Center in Flint shows that the proportion of infants and children that have above-average levels of lead in their blood has nearly doubled since the city switched from getting water from the city of Detroit to using water from the Flint River. The move was designed to save financially-strapped Flint money. Instead, it has created a crisis, as the river is horribly polluted. Half of the lines that deliver water to Flint households are made of lead, which is leaching into the water supply, along with iron that is also eroding from the city’s water mains.
As Flint sorts out its problems, you may be wondering how you can tell if your own water is contaminated. If so, what should you do about it?
First, Test Your Water For Lead
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says, “The only way to know whether your tap water contains lead is to have it tested. You cannot see, taste, or smell lead in drinking water. Therefore, you must ask your water provider whether your water has lead in it. For homes served by public water systems, data on lead in tap water may be available on the Internet from your local water authority.”
The U.S. EPA publishes annual Consumer Confidence Reports, though data is not available for all states. Check here to see if you can find information on your locality.
If your water provider does not post helpful information, you should call and find out. Begin by asking your water authority these two key questions:
1. Does my water have lead in it above EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb)? If not, no action is needed. If yes, CDC suggests you ask the next question:
2. Does the service pipe at the street (header pipe) have lead in it? This is very important. If the pipe at the street (header pipe) DOES contain lead, lead in the tap water may be coming from that pipe or connected pipes (it may also be coming from sources inside your home). Like in the case of Flint, it’s also possible that the water itself is contaminated.
Until the lead source is eliminated, you should take the following steps any time you wish to use tap water for drinking or cooking, especially when the water has been off and sitting in the pipes for more than 6 hours.
- a. Before using any tap water for drinking or cooking, run high-volume taps (such as your shower) on COLD for 5 minutes or more;
- b. Then, run the kitchen tap on COLD for 1–2 additional minutes;
- c. Fill a clean container(s) with water from this tap. This water will be suitable for drinking, cooking, preparation of baby formula or other consumption. To conserve water, collect multiple containers of water at once (after you have fully flushed the water from the tap as described).
If the service pipe bringing water to your home from the street does not have lead in it, the lead in your tap water may be coming from fixtures, pipes or elsewhere inside your home. Again, until you eliminate the source, use the above precautions if the water has been sitting in the pipes for more than 6 hours.
In all situations, drink or cook only 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.
NOTE: Boiling lead-tainted water will NOT reduce the amount of lead it contains. In fact, some scientists think it could make the problem worse because, as water evaporates during the boiling process, the lead will concentrate. You might want to use bottled water for boiling potatoes, rice or spaghetti until you get the lead problem fixed.
If you do choose bottled water, get it from a filtration system that has been certified by an independent testing organization to reduce or eliminate lead. Read the labels carefully or contact the bottling company to make sure the water they use is lead-free.
Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead exposure. Therefore, for homes with children or pregnant women and with water lead levels exceeding EPA’s action level of 15 ppb, CDC recommends using bottled water or water from a filtration system that has been certified by an independent testing organization to reduce or eliminate lead for cooking, drinking and baby formula preparation.
What If Your Own Home’s Lead Pipes or Plumbing Are Contaminating Your Water?
- First, test the water. You can contact your state lead program for information about water testing in your area.
- Inspect the aerator on the end of your faucet. Remove any debris, especially metal particles.
- Again, flush water lines before using the water for drinking or cooking.
If you own your own home and discover the water lines contain lead solder, you may need to replace them to be safe. Contact your water authority for information about replacing water service lines.
As for bathing and showering, EPA says that should be safe for you and your children, even if the water contains lead over EPA’s action level., because human skin does not absorb lead in water. However, because kids have a tendency to drink the water when they’re showering or bathing, you probably want to find an alternative. Either give them sponge baths with bottled water, or shower at the local public pool and recreation facilities, if that is at all feasible.
Whatever the source, if you find elevated lead levels in your drinking water, take it seriously.
Excessive amounts of lead place adults at higher risk for cancer, stroke and high blood pressure, reports Pennsylvania State University. At even greater risk are children, whose rapidly growing bodies absorb lead more quickly and efficiently. Lead can cause premature birth, a reduced birth weight, seizures, behavioral disorders like ADHD, brain damage and a lower IQ level in children.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers lead the most serious environmental health hazard for children in the United States, so you should take it seriously too.