Note: Illinois PTA has an advocacy campaign running now through January 10, 2017 to urge the Illinois House to join the Illinois Senate in passing SB550, a bill that would require testing every unique drinking water source in all Illinois schools and report high lead levels to families.
If you were looking to make a pipe, lead looks to be just about the perfect metal to use. It’s fairly soft as metals go, so it’s easy to work with. It doesn’t react strongly with water like iron or steel, so water running in the pipe or in the ground around the pipe won’t make the pipe corrode to a significant. It’s relatively abundant and has been mined for millennia. It seems like the perfect metal for the job; so much so that the word plumbing comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum. There’s just one problem with lead—exposure to it causes numerous health problems for adults and especially children.
How Lead Gets in Drinking Water
While lead doesn’t react strongly to water like iron or steel, it still corrodes (like iron rusts) when exposed to water, especially if the water has high acidity or low mineral content. Lead poisoning in ancient Rome was not due to its lead pipes, as the high calcium levels in the water formed a protective layer inside the pipes between the lead pipe and the water. It was the use of lead cookware and as an additive in food (e.g., as a preservative in wine) that resulted in lead poisoning.
In the United States, lead pipes were used not only in indoor plumbing but also in the line that ran from the water main to the house. When copper pipes were used, they were often connected with brass fittings (which contain small amounts of lead to make them easier to make) or with lead solder. The longer that water is exposed to these lead-containing items, the higher the lead level in the water. This is why testing for lead in water uses the “first draw” (i.e., water that has sat in the pipe for a while) for the sample.
Homes and buildings built after 1986 are less likely to have lead pipes, brass fixtures and fittings, or lead solder. That is due to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) using the Safe Drinking Water Act to reduce the maximum allowable lead content of pipes, fittings, fixtures, and solder in order to be considered safe to use for drinking water.
Lead Exposure Standards
The EPA is required under the Safe Drinking Water Act to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no health effects are likely to occur. These are non-enforceable health goals based only on possible health risks and are known as Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs). For lead in drinking water, the MCLG is zero because any exposure to lead can lead to health issues and because lead bioaccumulates (i.e., builds up over time) in the body.
Since drinking water suppliers likely cannot completely eliminate lead, EPA has set an “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb). One part per billion is like one grain of sand in a sandbox, one drop of ink in a 14,000 gallon backyard swimming pool, or one second in 32 years. The 15 ppb action level was set based on costs and benefits of removing lead from drinking water, not on safety like the MCLG above.
When measuring lead exposure in people, a blood sample is tested. For adults, the level at which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends taking action is 10 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL). For children, the level is only 5 μg/dL due to the increased health effects of lead on their development and their smaller body size.
It is important to note that drinking water is not the only way that children are exposed to lead. Lead in paint, dust, sole, air, and food may also be sources of lead exposure for children. EPA estimates that drinking water can make up to 20% or more of a person’s exposure to lead. For infants who consume mostly powdered formula mixed with water, 40% to 60% of their exposure can come from drinking water.
Health Effects of Lead on Children
Even low levels of lead exposure in children can result in:
- Behavior and learning problems
- Permanent intellectual disability
- Reduced ability to pay attention
- Slowed growth
- Hearing problems
- Kidney failure
In addition, lead builds up in our bodies over time, where it is stored in bones along with calcium. During pregnancy, lead is released from the mother’s bones along with maternal calcium and is used to help form the bones of the fetus. This is especially true if the mother does not have enough calcium in her diet. Lead in the mother’s bloodstream can also cross the placental barrier, exposing the fetus to lead. This in utero lead exposure can result in reduced growth of the fetus and premature birth.
School Drinking Water and Lead
As noted above, lead levels in drinking water increase over time as the water sits without moving. For schools, this effect can be particularly important because of how drinking water is used in schools. Afternoon and evening activities at a school are often limited to only part of the school building, meaning that water fountains and sinks in other parts of the building do not run water from the end of the school day until the beginning of the next day. Water is also likely to sit in pipes over weekends and school holidays and breaks.
What You Can Do
The first thing to do is join Illinois PTA’s campaign to pass SB550 in the Illinois House. This bill, which has already passed the Illinois Senate, would require every school in Illinois—public, private, and parochial—to test for lead in the water of every unique drinking water source and to report high lead levels to families. The campaign has a prewritten e-mail to send to your Illinois representative urging them to support SB550 during the lame duck session on January 9-10, 2017. All you need to do is provide your name, contact information, and address (so Voter Voice can look up who your representative is for you). It only takes a minute of your time to speak up for safe school drinking water.
In addition, the EPA has an information page on lead in drinking water, as does the CDC. EPA also provides a Safe Drinking Water Hotline that you can call or e-mail to get your questions answered. The CDC has a general lead exposure information page and information on how to prevent children’s exposure to lead.