Common Exposure to Lead and Why Even Small Amounts Matter

It’s probably easy to overlook the problem of lead exposure. Many of us imagine that whole chunks need to be consumed for any adverse health effects, but as Flint, Michigan has proven, consistent exposure in small amounts can be detrimental.

Flint has sparked questions that nobody seems to have the answers to. Are other towns at risk? Could my family be affected? Is lead the cause of my health problems?

Even when the municipal water lead levels come back clean by federal standards, there is still the chance that the metal could get into the water from eroding lead plumbing which is common in many areas.

Kate Giles, a mother of two, moved from Washington, D.C. to her new home in Rhode Island for a job in the international public health sector six years ago. During her pregnancies, she kept a close eye on her health, ensuring that she ate well, exercises regularly and followed her doctor’s orders.

Before the issues in Flint she, nor the doctors, had thought to test her drinking water for lead contamination. Nobody thought that it could be a problem, but in April she discovered that her home is one of an estimated 6 million in the US that gets its drinking water through a lead pipe.

The problem is hidden from us, buried far underground where we couldn’t possibly imagine our health problems might originate from. Lead service lines are particularly common in older cities, many of them in the Midwest and Northeast, where service pipes can be made of pure lead.

This toxic metal can erode into the water, especially when there is a disturbance in the ground because of construction or heavy traffic. Marc Edwards, a civil engineer from Virginia Tech, described lead service lines as “ticking time bombs” which will eventually impact the health of the people that use them.

Low-Level Lead Exposure is Still Harmful

While it’s true that blood lead levels are drastically reducing in recent decades, studies out of New Zealand have shown that even extremely low-level lead exposure can be harmful. One particular group of researchers found that even five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood can cause lower IQ’s, lower socioeconomic status and reduced memory.

Public health officials recommend us to remove all lead from our environments because there is very little data on the exact amount of lead exposure necessary for health problems.

But despite this, there are no federal notification laws for the presence of lead plumbing in the same way that there are for lead paint. If you buy a house, the realtor and current homeowner are required by law to inform you if lead paint is used in the house, but they don’t need to tell you about lead plumbing.

Giles decided to test her water for lead, finding that it had 0.7 parts per billion of lead in the water, far below what the E.P.A. has set as their “action level.”

But Jeff Cohen who helped the agency to develop their Lead and Copper Rule in the 80’s said that their “action level” wasn’t based on medical research; it came from water utilities.

“It was based on the little data that was available at that time from water utilities in the U.S. that had installed different levels of corrosion control treatment,” he said.

The Rule was Never Designed for Safety

The action level was never “designed to identify a safe level of lead in drinking water. It’s simply one of many pieces of data that should be used to determine whether corrosion control treatment is working or not.”

In fact, Joel Beauvias, the deputy assistant administrator for the E.P.A’s Office of Water stated that the agency believes that “no level of lead is safe.”

The ultimate solution would be for all municipal piping to be investigated, with any lead lines being replaced with a safer alternative. But there is resistance to the idea, likely because of the extraordinary cost which would be incurred by the government.

Giles eventually decided to replace her line herself, claiming that it had cost her $1,400. “This should really be the duty, the responsibility of the government,” she said.


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