If you haven't already, chances are you'll soon be getting more info in the mail from your water utility company reminding you about the risks of lead poisoning. After it was revealed in 2004 that lead levels in Washington, D.C.'s, water supply were unacceptably high and that consumers had not been promptly informed, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a rule change effective December 10 that will require utilities to test for lead more stringently and to more swiftly and thoroughly inform consumers of any problems.
In children, too-high levels can delay mental and physical development and cause a host of health problems, including reduced IQ, attention deficit disorder, and hearing loss. Adults can end up with high blood pressure and kidney problems as a result of too much lead in their system. Most exposure comes from swallowing or breathing in paint chips or dust, but the EPA estimates that about 10 percent to 20 percent comes from drinking water; in formula-fed infants, the figure is 40 to 60 percent.
Since regulators have phased lead out of gasoline and other products since the 1980s, the severity of the exposure problem has dropped dramatically. In 1978, for example, 13.5 million children had elevated blood levels; in 2002, the number had dropped to 310,000. But now many scientists argue that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's current threshold of concern—10 micrograms per deciliter of blood—is too high. They worry that any level of lead exposure is harmful.
Though lead rarely comes from source water, it can leach from pipes, fixtures, and solder on its path to the faucet. That means that even if your city or town water isn't known for having high lead levels, the plumbing in your house could still be putting you at risk. Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have pipes that leach lead, but even new homes can be at risk since modern "lead free" plumbing equipment can legally contain up to 8 percent lead. The American Water Works Association and the CDC offer advice about how residents can find out about and protect themselves from lead in the water.
Determine whether the water in your home has lead
*Find out about lead testing results in your community by checking your annual Consumer Confidence Report. Utilities are generally required to test lead levels at a certain number of high-risk homes every six months and should report whether they have detected any problems in this annual water quality report.
*Have a licensed plumber determine if your home contains lead solder, lead pipes, or pipe fittings that contain lead.
*Since most homes will not be randomly checked by the water utility and you can't see, smell, or taste lead in your water, testing at the tap is usually the only definitive way to measure the lead levels in your home or workplace. If you opt to get your water tested, which usually costs between $20 and $100, be sure to use a certified laboratory.
*You can find out if your blood has high levels of lead with a blood test. Consult with your family doctor or pediatrician about whether testing makes sense for your family.
How to cut your exposure if your water contains lead
*Use cold water for cooking or drinking; lead leaches more easily into hot water than cold water.
*Flush your pipes before cooking with or drinking tap water. Let the water run from the tap until it is noticeably colder, especially when the faucet has gone unused for more than a few hours. There's no need to waste this water: Use it to water plants or clean.
*Consider getting a water filter that removes lead. Using this interactive Web tool from NSF International, an independent organization that certifies that consumer products meet certain standards, will help you find a filter whose marketing claims about lead reduction are accurate.