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Beyond flint: lead exposure in tap water draws concern

Flint water

Recent news stories have shed the spotlight on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan where city officials are being blamed for poisoning residents with lead after they switched their water source from Detroit water to the Flint River.Although this is a story that many of us know for the immense number of people it affected, this is hardly the only incident in the U.S.

After stopping the addition of a chemical to keep lead out of water pipes in Sebring, Ohio, routine water tests found unsafe levels of lead in the tap water. According to a local news provider (WKBN), “Correspondence from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the Village of Sebring showed concerns with water testing, beginning in late September.” Although the elevated lead levels were noted by the EPA in November, the town residents didn’t learn of the issues until [January, 2016].

Adding to lead contamination within cities, the Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) reported that “residents of Washington, DC unwittingly drank water contaminated with lead from 2001 to 2004 when the city switched its water disinfectant from chlorine to chloramine which caused the release of lead. The New York Times also stated that “unsafe levels of lead have turned up in tap water in city after city— in Durham and Greenville, N.C., in 2006; in Columbia, S.C., in 2005; and last July in Jackson, Mississippi,where officials waited six months to disclose the contamination.”

Although, federal officials and many scientists agree that most of the nation’s community water systems provide safe drinking water, cases as the ones stated above show that incidents do occur that leave city residents vulnerable to disease and pollutants.

In addition, an annual report done in 2014 by the Pennsylvania Department of Health showed that there are 17 out of 20 cities in Pennsylvania that had a higher percentage of children with Elevated Blood Lead Levels (EBLL) than the rest of the state.Although EBLL can come from any type of exposure to lead, not just within drinking water, it’s still is an alarming concern as some side effects to lead poisoning in adults, children and even unborn children are irreversible.

Lead Poisoning Symptoms

According to Healthline, lead poisoning is rare after a single exposure or ingestions, but repeated lead exposure can result in:

  • abdominal pain
  • aggressive behavior
  • constipation
  • sleep problems
  • headaches
  • irritability
  • loss of appetite
  • fatigue
  • high blood pressure
  • numbness or tingling in the extremities
  • memory loss
  • anemia
  • kidney dysfunction

Children and unborn children run a higher risk when exposed to lead due to their developing brains and bodies. Mental impairment from lead poisoning in children may include :

  • behavior problems
  • low IQ
  • poor grades at school
  • problems with hearing
  • learning difficulties (short and long term)
  • growth delays

When interviewed by CNN about the Flint crisis, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha stated, "There's tons of evidence on what lead does to a child, and it is one of the most damning things that you can do to a population. It drops your IQ, it affects your behavior, it's been linked to criminality, it has multigenerational impacts.”

What can you do to stay safe?

Although having a proper water filtration system that removes lead from your drinking water could be an answer, we also need to keep in mind that if lead is found in our drinking water, it’s also within the water we use to shower with, use to wash our vegetables, use to hydrate our pets, use to clean our clothes with and many other daily activities. The EPA suggest to:

  • Have your water tested for lead - Residents can buy lead testing kits at a nearby home improvement store.And if plumbing was installed before 1986, residents are urged to consider replacing possible lead-contaminated plumbing.
  • Flush pipes before using – any time the water in a particular faucet has not been used for six hours or longer, turn on the faucet using cold water option and let it run until the water becomes cold.You can also contact your water utility to verify flushing times for your area.
  • Use cold tap water for cooking and other necessities – Hot water is more likely to leach lead from pipes, so try using cold water when cooking, preparing formula and drinking.
  • Using proper drinking water filtration – although some of the more popular pitcher filters can reduce dissolved lead and other metals, the EHP recommends a more sophisticated filtration system, such as Reverse Osmosis. In addition, they recommend for consumers to select filters that comply with the National Sanitation Foundation/American National Standards Institute (NSF/ANSI) Standard 53 for drinking water treatment units.

The reoccurrence of lead contamination within tap water shows that as safe as we believe our main water source to be, city contamination is possible and taking the proper measurements before a contamination can help the situation if an incident should occur in our home.