By Brenda Goodman, MA
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
Jan. 22, 2016 -- It's not just Flint, MI. The drinking water of many cities across the U.S. could have high lead levels, and you wouldn't necessarily know it.
Like Flint, many places have water systems that rely on lead pipes to carry water to homes. When those pipes are disturbed or damaged by road vibrations, chemical disinfectants, and even summertime heat, it can cause lead rust inside the pipes to flake off, contaminating the water.
You can't see, smell, or taste lead in water. It can cause permanent damage to the brain and other organs, and it's most dangerous for kids, whose small bodies are still developing, the CDC says.
Most people know about the threat of lead in old paint. People who buy homes built before 1978 are often warned that chips of old paint might be dangerous if swallowed. But the threat of lead from tap water isn't as well known.
Flint's Water Fiasco
Flint got into trouble when the cash-strapped city tried to lower its water bills. In 2014, a state-appointed emergency manager switched Flint from more the more expensive Detroit water system to drawing water from the polluted Flint river. The acidic river water corroded the city's lead water pipes, causing them to leach high levels of lead into the town's drinking water.
The state's chief medical executive estimates that nearly 9,000 children in the city were poisoned. Even though the state has switched Flint back to the Detroit water system, the pipes are so damaged that the water may still not be safe to drink. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has formally apologized to the citizens of Flint and promised to fix the problem.
But for many kids, the damage may already be done. Lead builds up in the body, and the nerve damage it causes can be permanent. A child who has been exposed, even at very low levels, may have problems with attention, learning, and controlling impulses. Lead exposure dramatically increases the risk of developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.
Flint is an extreme example, but experts who have studied the problem say the issues seen there are being repeated around the country, just more quietly.
"We've made some changes in water that, in retrospect, are actually making lead corrosion worse," Marc Edwards, PhD, told the EPA in a 2014 meeting on the issue. Edwards is professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech. He's been leading the investigation into the water problems in Flint and has previously exposed lead problems tied to water in Washington, DC. "Lead levels from service lines in many cities are much higher than we ever thought."
In addition to Washington, independent tests by Edwards and others have found high levels of lead in tap water in New Orleans , Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Boston.
"This is a national problem," says Yanna Lambrinidou, PhD, the president of Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives, a nonprofit group that advocates for changes to protect people from lead in water.
"It's going to sound crazy to say this, but Flint is one of the lucky cities that actually got caught," she says.
The EPA requires utilities to conduct regular testing for lead in water, but those rules were established in 1991, and they rely on testing methods that Edwards and other scientists have since shown can miss lead.
The EPA has been in the process of updating the regulation, called the Lead and Copper Rule, since 2008.
"The process has taken much longer than anyone thought," says Lambrinidou, who served on a panel of experts that has issued recommendations to the EPA. She says she doesn't expect to see even a first draft of any changes to the Lead and Copper Rule for another 2 years. The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Both Lambrinidou and Edwards say they hope the situation in Flint will have a silver lining, underscoring the urgency of the problem to lawmakers and speeding reforms.
EPA officials have reportedly met with Flint families who have been affected by lead poisoning.
"I have no doubt that [the crisis in Flint] is affecting EPA, but whether there's greater urgency now, that is truly and sincerely felt, is impossible for me to know," Lambrinidou says.
No one is sure just how many lead service lines are still out there or even where they are. Cities like Washington that have tried to replace their lead water pipes found they couldn't easily locate them because the original maps had been lost, Edwards says.
One study, commissioned by water utilities, estimated that somewhere between 74 million and 96 million people could be drinking water with lead above the safe limit if the EPA were to require more rigorous testing.
"The experience of Flint underscores the importance of public communications about lead risks," says David LaFrance, CEO of the American Water Works Association, in a statement posted on the group's web site. "Water utility customers should know how to determine if they have lead service lines, the benefits of removing lead service lines, and the steps to protect themselves and their families from lead exposure."
In addition to the problem posed by public pipes, many homes have some kind of lead in their plumbing. Before 1986, it was common for builders to use hot, molten lead, called lead solder, to glue pipes together. Another popular material for plumbing has been brass laced with lead. This leaded brass can leach lead into home water supplies. A recent law requires manufacturers to remove nearly all lead from brass plumbing fixtures by 2014.
What to Do?
"Anybody who wants to protect their children from lead in drinking water should, at the very least, be using a filter," Lambrinidou says.
Read the filter's label carefully to make sure that it has been certified to remove lead. There are pitchers and faucet-mounted filters that will do the job.
"Make sure you use the filtered water for drinking and cooking," she says.
If you're worried about lead poisoning, a doctor can check for recent and ongoing exposure with a blood test. Lead begins to migrate out of the blood within about 48 hours after eating or drinking it, so more specialized tests may be necessary to pick up older or more sporadic exposure.
And finally, your tap water can be tested for lead. Start by contacting your water utility. Some offer free testing. If yours doesn't, you can pick up a lead testing kit from most home improvement or hardware stores.
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