Your Health: Lead at Home

image of a child running tap waterWith substantial media focus on the tap water situation in Flint, Michigan, and beyond in the last few weeks, many people are concerned about lead levels in their tap water. This concern is well founded, for lead has devastating impacts on our health, and especially on children’s health. There is no amount of lead exposure that is considered safe for children—even the smallest exposures can impact health.

What does lead do? From CHE’s Practice Prevention column on lead:

High levels of lead in children can lead to anemia, stomach and kidney problems, muscle weakness, brain damage and ultimately death. Even very low levels of exposure can affect a child’s mental and physical growth. Studies have linked elevated blood-lead levels in children with reduced intelligence, slowed mental development, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, increased risk for delinquency and criminal behavior, heightened risk of obesity and delayed onset of puberty.

Lead at home can lurk in several places:

  • plumbing fixtures, from which it leaches into tap water
  • older house paint (manufactured before 1978)
  • paint on some toys, especially imported toys
  • some vinyl products, such as mini-blinds, toys, lunchboxes, purses and bibs
  • soil, especially if the exterior paint on a house contains lead, if the house is located where there was heavy traffic when lead was added to gasoline (prior to 1986), or if the house is located near or downwind from a smelter (either active or decommissioned)
  • some candle wicks, especially in scented candles
  • residues from hobbies such as soldering glass or metal, making bullets or glazing pottery
  • the glaze in some crock pots or crockery dishware, especially imported crockery

Many of the links in the list above provide tips for removing lead or reducing exposures from products. For water, however, CHE passes on advice regarding testing your home’s water from the Cambridge Water Department in Massachusetts. Check with your local water or health department for assistance and recommendations on test kits. A water test should collect water at least two times as described here:

A test should demonstrate a worst case/best case scenario. Worst case is where the tap water is left standing in the plumbing for a period of time and is likely to see if lead is present in the plumbing. Best case is after the tap water in the plumbing has been flushed and is likely to contain extremely low levels or detect no lead at all.

If testing shows that your water at home contains small amounts of lead after water has been left in the pipes overnight, or if you know or suspect that your pipes or water delivery system contain lead, follow this advice from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs:

  • In the morning, run the faucet where you normally take your first drink or fill up your coffee pot until the water turns as cold as it’s going to get. This flushes out the water that has been standing in your pipes overnight. If no one is home and using water during the day, do the same thing in the evening.
  • Always used cold tap water for cooking, drinking and preparing baby formula or foods. Hot water dissolves metals faster.
  • At the day’s end, fill a jug with drinking water for later use.
  • Have an electrician check your wiring. Corrosion within your plumbing may be greater when grounding wires from your home’s electrical system are attached.

For those who prefer not to let all that running water simply flow down the drain, capture the day’s first water in a bucket and use it to refill toilet tanks, add it to a filling washing machine, or water landscaping plants (but not edibles).

Children and pregnant women especially need to be protected from lead exposures. As a final protective action, we’ll address another source of lead, also described in CHE’s Practice Prevention column:

Lead can accumulate in the bones and teeth of individuals who are exposed. Women who have been exposed to lead at any time may have enough lead in their bones and teeth to be toxic to their fetuses and babies. During pregnancy or breastfeeding, calcium from the mother provides materials for the child’s developing bones. If the mother does not have a sufficient supply of calcium in her diet, her own bones and teeth may be resorbed to provide calcium. If the mother’s bones and teeth contain lead, this toxic material may also be mobilized from her bones and circulated to the developing child or her breast milk. Pregnant and nursing mothers need to be sure their own calcium intake is adequate.

If you have any concerns about your or your child’s exposure, ask your physician to test blood-lead levels. There is no way to reverse the effects of lead once the damage is done—prevention is key.

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