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Study finds lead contamination widespread in household water

It isn't just Flint, Michigan. While lead water pipes have been outlawed in homes, many still get water from systems with lead transmission lines. The lead from those lines can leach into the water delivered to the home.

Your home.

The contaminated water is then used for drinking, cooking and other uses. It is used to prepare powdered baby formula, putting infants at high risk.

The levels need not be high to cause harm, especially to infants and children. According to the EPA, there is no safe level of lead in drinking water. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a concentration no greater than one part per billion. Over 3.9 parts per billion is associated with a permanent loss of IQ in children. Yet the EPA won't take official action until the level reaches 15 parts per billion.

Nationwide survey finds elevated lead in almost 80% of homes

Recently, Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), a nonprofit alliance of child health advocacy groups, scientists, and Virginia Tech, offered low-cost home lead testing. Nearly 800 families from 46 states had their lead levels tested. The results were used for a study that gives insight into how widespread a problem lead contamination in water may be.

It's important to understand this wasn't a truly representative sample. The participants actively sought to have their lead levels tested, and many did so because they had reason to fear their water might be contaminated. Still, HBBF's research director was surprised so many of the households tested positive.

Lead was found in 79% of the homes tested:

  • 40% had over 1 part per billion of lead, which means they failed the American Academy of Pediatrics' safety limit.
  • Another 15% had over 3.9 parts per billion, risking permanent damage to IQ.
  • Another 4% had over 15 parts per billion, the level at which the EPA is expected to act.

In only 21% of the homes was there no lead detected. Older homes were slightly more likely to have lead in the water, although 70% of homes built after the year 2000 had some lead.

What can be done?

It can be a challenge to hold municipalities and water providers liable for lead contamination in water. Weak regulation and the EPA's role makes it harder to point the finger at utilities, but it may be possible to hold them accountable. Meanwhile, there are actions you can take to limit your exposure:

Get your home's water tested. HBBF is still offering low-cost testing, and some utilities offer this testing for free.

Install or buy a water filter. It must be NSF/ANSI 53 or 58 certified to remove total lead.

Flush your water line for 45 seconds before drinking. This clears out water that has been stagnant.

Unscrew and rinse out the faucet aerator every few months. Lead particles from corroded pipes can become trapped there.

Always use cold water for drinking, cooking and baby formula. Hot water can leach metals like lead from pipes.

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