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Should You Worry About Lead in Your Water?

After the Flint water crisis, here's what you should do


(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.)

After the recent safety crisis stemming from high lead levels in the water system of Flint, Mich., many people are asking whether they should be worried about their own drinking water. Luckily, cases like Flint’s — in which a switch in the city’s water source from treated water to the corrosive Flint River caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply — are rare. And chances are, the water that pours from your tap is safe to drink and bathe in.

Striving for Change

In recent decades, the nation as a whole has made significant strides in reducing exposure to lead in water and other sources. Water flowing from municipal taps is generally well below the 15 parts per billion limit that’s mandated by federal law. “Because of the regulations in place, our U.S. water systems are pretty safe,” says Dr. Helen J. Binns, a pediatrician and director of the Lead Evaluation Clinic at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Only use cold water for cooking and drinking — heat allows more lead to permeate water.

However, lead can sometimes be found in metal water taps, including the pipes on the inside of a person’s home, or the pipes that connect the house’s plumbing to the main line at the street, Binns says. Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes.

Keep in mind that most studies show that exposure to lead-contaminated water alone probably won’t elevate blood lead levels in adults. In infants and small children it could be another story, especially if the lead levels are high and children consume a lot of it relative to their body size. Their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead, which can lower IQ, slow growth and cause behavior and learning problems.

If you want to be sure that your water is free of dangerous lead, you need to have it tested.

Testing the Water

First, ask your local water authority how much lead is in the water supply. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires water systems to release an annual Consumer Confidence Report that includes levels of different substances. Sometimes these reports are posted online. If yours is not, contact your water system.

Even if your local water supply is considered safe, lead may exist in your home’s plumbing, so you may want to send a sample out for testing. (If you use well water, it also could contain lead.) A list of certified testing facilities should be available from your local water authority. The cost generally runs between $20 and $100. You can buy lead testing kits in home improvement stores to collect samples.

To take a sample, “take the first morning draw,” Binns says. “It has been in the pipes for six hours or more.” So if there’s lead, you will be sure to detect it.

In the unlikely event that your water is found to contain high lead levels, the EPA recommends flushing your pipes by running the water until it becomes cold before drinking. The longer the water sits in pipes, the more lead leaches into it.

And only use cold water for cooking and drinking. (Heat allows more lead to permeate water.)

If you have lead-containing pipes and fixtures, consider replacing them, use bottled water  or use a system water filter, designed to filter out lead — those that attach to the tap won’t do the job.

Bathing and showering should be safe regardless — human skin does not absorb lead in water.

By Beth Howard
A former magazine editor, Beth Howard specializes in health and medicine. She also writes for U.S. News & World Report; Reader's Digest; O, The Oprah Magazine; The Washington Post; and The Wall Street Journal. She is based in Charlotte, N.C.

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