The ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan is heartbreaking for the people who live there -- and may have made you wonder at least a little about lead levels in your own home. That wonder may have turned to worry after news reports that many other cities around the country, including several in nearby New Jersey and Pennsylvania, have reported high levels of lead in their water, or high percentages of kids with elevated levels in their blood.
If you’re concerned about lead in your water, there are steps you can take to ensure that you and your family remain safe, says Jacqueline Moline, MD, chair of occupational medicine at North Shore University Hospital. Here’s how to get started.
1. Learn about your water supply. Lead enters drinking water when it leeches from pipes or plumbing fixtures. This can happen on a community level -- especially if a city’s pipes are old or its water is corrosive enough to damage them (as was the case in Flint) -- or it can happen with the plumbing in individual homes.
As long as your water comes from a public supplier (and not a private well), the results of regular lead testing should be available online and mailed to you once a year. But you might also want to test the water in your own home, especially if you have old pipes. You may be able to request a free lead testing kit from your local health or environmental health department; otherwise, you can find one for less than $20 at your local home improvement store. If testing shows elevated levels of lead, take these steps to reduce exposure and risk of health problems:
2. Flush your pipes. Let your faucet run with cold water for one to two minutes anytime it’s been sitting in the pipes for more than six hours, like first thing in the morning or when you get home from work. (If your water supplier has let you know that the service pipe at the street has lead in it, you may need to run your shower or bathtub tap on cold for five minutes first. Then run the kitchen tap on cold for another minute or two before filling your glass or cooking pot.) “The water that runs in these first few minutes can be used for bathing or watering plants, but should not be used for drinking or cooking,” says Moline.
3. Use cold water for drinking or cooking. Hot water leeches more lead from the pipes, so always turn the tap to cold when you need water to drink or to use for cooking (boiling water does not remove lead).
4. Buy an NSF-certified filter. Some water filters can remove lead from your drinking water, but many of the popular models you’ll find in home and kitchen stores are not designed to do so. Be sure to purchase a filtration system that’s certified by NSF International, a nonprofit organization widely recognized as a leader in this area, and replace filters as often as directed.
5. Consider replacing your plumbing. If your water tests positive for high lead levels but your city’s supply isn’t to blame, you might want to consider replacing old household pipes or fixtures. (Ask your water department for information about replacing the service lines into your home, too.)
6. Make sure young kids are tested. Young children are at the highest risk for developing serious problems from ongoing lead exposure. Because their bodies and brains are still developing, lead can stunt or delay their physical growth and cognitive development.
In New York State, kids are required to be tested for lead at age 1 and again at age 2. Be sure your child is up-to-date on his or her checkups, and that you have record of those lead tests and their results.
7. Don’t ignore other possible sources. Last but not least, look at the bigger picture. It’s smart to learn about your drinking water, but in most homes where lead is a problem, the main source is lead paint on walls. When the paint flakes off, it can mix with soil or dust and be inhaled or ingested.
“It’s common for young children to crawl around and get dirt and household dust -- which may contain lead -- on their hands and in their mouths,” says Moline. “Lead is sweet, so children actually like to eat the paint chips.”
Lead paint is illegal today, but in many homes built before 1978, old lead paint can be found under newer, lead-free coats. Those fresh coats are protective -- but only if they don’t peel and expose what’s underneath. So while you’re testing your water and taking precautions at the tap, make sure you know what’s on your walls, too.