Ask the Expert: What You Don’t Know About Lead
Your local water company sends out an annual water quality report. The report may reveal there are very low, safe levels of lead in the tap water. But unbeknownst to most people, this doesn’t mean their homes, businesses or local schools are safe from lead.
While an estimated 63 million people in the United States may be exposed to high lead levels in water, no amount of lead is safe for consumption. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that even low levels of lead can negatively affect IQ, attention and academic achievement. Ingesting lead can also cause serious health problems, including damage to the brain, central nervous system and kidneys, and it can even be fatal.
When lead pipes were widely installed, there weren’t signs that these types of pipes were dangerous. For years, lead pipes have been used to transport fluids around the world, due to lead’s ease of extraction and malleability. However, the prevalence of lead pipes has left the people in many countries, including the U.S., vulnerable to consuming high levels of lead on a daily basis without their knowledge. Lead poisoning from lead pipes has been a somewhat-hidden problem until the Flint, Michigan, crisis pushed the issue into the spotlight.
But it is not just about lead pipes or lead service lines underground – the problem is within the walls of homes and buildings, and it may even be as obvious as faucets. This is because there are many different types of lead contributors that leach lead into drinking water after the city’s pipes bring it to the home or building. Lead contributors come in many forms and can be located throughout the plumbing systems inside homes or buildings. These possible lead contributors include lead solder used to join copper pipes, bronze fittings, brass fittings and galvanized pipes.
So, what can be done about high levels of lead in drinking water? Since damage from lead poisoning cannot be reversed, we must prevent lead exposure before it can occur. There needs to be increased responsibility on water agencies, big and small, as well as property owners. But first and foremost, there needs to be increased education about how harmful lead consumption can occur.
Many people incorrectly believe that their families are only at risk when they drink water delivered from lead pipes or if the local water agency’s water quality report shows high lead levels. Again, let me make it clear that this is false.
The only, true way to really know how much lead is in your drinking water is to have your water tested for lead at the tap.
Unfortunately, these lead contributors, which make potable water piping systems unsafe, are all around us. Buildings completed before 1950 commonly have lead service lines (the underground pipes that bring clean water from the city main to the building), buildings constructed before the 1960s often have galvanized steel potable pipes and from the 1960s into the 1980s, copper piping systems were often installed inside homes and buildings. All of these types of products just mentioned carry a potentially high risk of lead leaching. However, no matter when a home or office building was built, there may be lead contributors, such as fixtures, that can leach high amounts of lead into the tap water.
For example, a homeowner in southern California tested his home’s tap water for high lead levels in 2017 by using LeadSmart, a lead testing and remediation program for potable water systems. A LeadSmart service technician found that the homeowner’s kitchen faucet was leaching dangerously high levels of lead into his home’s tap water. After the faucet was replaced, lead levels were brought down to well below Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cutoff levels at 15 ppb.
Currently, there is a concerning lack of requirements for landlords and property managers to disclose existing lead contributors in piping systems inside homes and buildings. Until the disclosure of lead piping, lead contributors and water quality are all included as part of the disclosure process (for people or companies buying or renting properties), the people using the home or building will not know if high lead levels are present, unless the water is tested. This is why testing is so critical.
In addition to the need for more liability, mandatory water testing needs to also be conducted. The California Department of Education has rightfully already begun this process. As of Jan. 1, 2018, the tap water in all public, k-12 schools in California (built before Jan. 1, 2010), will be tested for lead, by July 1, 2019. This is an important first step in ensuring that our children are safe from lead poisoning. We can only assume (and hope) that laws requiring homes and other types of buildings to be tested will follow.
By Larry Gillanders
Larry Gillanders is the co-founder of Santa Ana-based ACE DuraFlo, which restores piping in place using an epoxy coating.