Is my water safe from lead?” With the water crisis in Flint, it’s a question many parents and families have asked in the last year. Kristen Schweighoefer, Environmental Health Director for Washtenaw County Public Health (WCPH), has been fielding many of those questions and giving helpful tips and advice on how to protect kids from lead exposure.
As a parent herself, Schweighoefer says while water has been in the spotlight for lead poisoning, the most common exposure is still through lead-based paint and other household materials. “I never thought kids would actually chew on paint chips, until I had kids myself and realized windowsills are just the right height–and kids will put anything in their mouth,” says Schweighoefer.
Lead is a component in many materials
Lead is a heavy metal that continues to be found in a variety of consumer products. Often used in lightbulbs, rubber, plastics, and even jewelry, there really is no safe level of exposure for children. Because of the dangerous health effects of lead, lead in gasoline was phased out in 1975 and three years later lead-based paint was banned.
Because lead was historically inexpensive and reliable, it also started being used in plumbing. Indeed, the very word “plumbing” comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum (Pb). Many pipelines and infrastructure built before 1978 across the country contained or still contain lead. When Flint attempted to save money by switching its water source from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Flint River it failed to make the water anti-corrosive. The water caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply.
Could what happened in Flint happen here?
Mchigan residents now have heightened awareness about their drinking water. Here in Washtenaw County and throughout Southeast Michigan there has been ongoing and preventative testing to ensure the water is safe to drink. For starters, Ann Arbor’s water supply is the Huron River, and the water is not corrosive. The city has no pipelines that contain lead, but there are still connecting lead pieces called “goosenecks” in local area service pipes. Last April, Ann Arbor City Council voted to replace all of these lead service lines by this November.
As these replacements continue, Ann Arbor’s water samples have detected extremely low or no traces of lead in water. While the Environmental Protection Agency says that 15 parts per billion is when action is needed, Ann Arbor’s water treatment facility says the safe level of lead is zero. To ensure our community’s children are safe, the city analyzed samples from every Ann Arbor Public School and determined the water is safe. (The only places that tested high were the Huron High School concession building and the training room. Additional tests performed at those sites after the pipes had been flushed showed lead was no longer detectable).
In more rural parts of our region, homes use groundwater delivered through wells. While lead is not typically found in groundwater, it can still be found in the pipes or solder in older homes. In places like Livingston County more than half of the residents are on wells. Though Brighton has replaced 80% of it’s original lead pipes, individual homeowners on wells should take precautions to ensure their pipes are safe.
Taking action on lead poisoning
According to Schweighoefer, lead poisoning often has no signs or symptoms. “Lead poisoning may be very random, an occasional upset stomach or constipation, irritability, poor appetite, sleep disturbances, hyperactivity – in other words, every three year old I have ever met,” she says. However, if these symptoms are chronic and there are also learning difficulties, behavioral problems or cognitive deficits parents should seek medical care.
Whether it’s through water, paint or other sources of lead in the environment, prevention is the best and most effective means to keeping your kids safe. While Washtenaw County and surrounding areas are testing for lead in water, it’s also up to homeowners to follow the tips for keeping a lead safe home.
Tips to minimize lead in your home
Despite actions taken by municipalities, pipes in older buildings and homes may still contain lead. Kristen Schweighoefer’s advice is to follow Washtenaw County Public Health (WCPH) Department’s recommendations:
- Flush pipes before drinking. Anytime water in a faucet has not been used for six hours run the water for 30-60 seconds until it becomes noticeably cold.
- Start with cold water for drinking or boiling water. Do not cook with or drink water from the hot water tap. Hot water can dissolve lead more quickly than cold water.
- Consider replacing lead-containing plumbing fixtures. A new law came into effect in 2014 limiting the amount of lead in brass faucets and plumbing.
For other sources of lead contamination keep a close eye on children living in homes built before 1978. These homes probably contain lead paint. There are some simple tips that can make a big difference:
- Keep wall surfaces in good repair so there is no flaking, chipping or peeling.
- Use a wet rag to clean hard surfaces where lead dust may accumulate like floors and window sills.
- Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter for carpets and vacuum slowly to assure that you pick up as much dust as possible.
- Provide good nutrition to your children including calcium, iron and vitamin C.
- Keep kids’ hands clean after playing outside, before eating and before bed.
- Wash toys and pacifiers that come in contact with the ground to help assure lead dust is removed.
If you’re concerned about lead in your water supply and would like to test your water,
water sample bottles are available through WCPH office.
Contact 734-222- 3800 or visit their website
for more information at www.ewashtenaw.org.