Remember the game of Clue? “Colonel Mustard, in the Billiard Room, with the Lead Pipe.” What if the lead pipe is dangerous even if it’s not being wielded by the vicious colonel? Since the story about severe lead contamination in Flint, Michigan surfaced, there is growing concern about lead in drinking water. While lead isn’t actually good for anybody, it’s particularly a concern for children and pregnant women because of the effect of lead on brain development. How much of a problem is it?
First, some context. Lead was used for centuries as a material for water pipes (indeed, the word plumbing comes from the Latin plumbum, meaning lead.) After the mid-1940s this was largely phased out in favor of copper, but through the 1980s lead-based solder continued to be used. Thus, most homes and buildings built before 1990 have at least the potential for a problem with lead in the water, as do most cities where the water distribution infrastructure is that old. Like Milwaukee.
Now, for the most part lead likes to stay in the pipe, rather than getting into the water. It mainly becomes a problem if the water is corrosive, leaching the lead out. In 1991, the EPA issued the Lead and Copper Rule, pursuant to the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. This rule requires water utilities to control the corrosivity of its water, which is the simplest way to mitigate the problem. In Flint, the water utility changed its water source to one that was much more corrosive, and failed to add the required treatment agents. That is what created the crisis there. (There was a similar problem in Washington DC in the early 2000s due to inadequate corrosion control.) If the proper procedures are being followed, the risk is considerably reduced throughout the water system. Water systems in Milwaukee and surrounding communities follow the procedures and meet the requirements for lead levels. (If you have a question about the quality of your water, you can get the annual Consumer Confidence Report for your water utility.)
Another vulnerability is when the pipes are physically disrupted, such as when a segment is damaged or replaced. This disruption can release lead into the water, an effect that is usually transient. In homes with lead pipes or solder, it is recommended that when repairs are needed, all the piping should be replaced at once. Since this is very expensive, few homeowners or landlords do that. So for the most part, lead in water is not a widespread problem in this community, but it can be for an individual home. Or school. Or day care.
So how much should residents of Milwaukee worry about lead in the water? Toxicologist Dr. Mark Kostic, of the Wisconsin Poison Center, urged a balanced perspective in an interview on WUWM. He correctly notes that the much bigger concern remains other environmental sources of lead, including paint and soil.
However, for those in older homes who are concerned about the potential for lead in the water, parents can take a number of steps to protect their children.
- Have their child screened for lead poisoning according to guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics. This includes a risk assessment starting at age 6 months, with blood lead testing for children identified as at risk.
- If a child is found to have elevated lead levels, the public health department should investigate to identify the causes, which should be addressed.
- For infants being fed formula reconstituted with tap water (a group particularly at risk), consider having home lead water levels tested through the local health department. Alternatively, run cold water (not hot) for 5 minutes before using it to mix with formula. Filters are available, but these need to be replaced regularly and the cost can add up. Bottled water is an alternative, but while the risk of lead is lower, it does not provide fluoride which is important for infant dental development.