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Lead in Our Drinking Water: Lead Pipes and the Health Risk from Contaminated Water - Part 2 of 2

The Environmental Protection agency estimates that lead in drinking water accounts for 20 percent of lead exposure in children, on average. Unfortunately for kids most at risk for lead poisoning, older homes with lead paint are also more likely to be served by lead water lines.

The U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act has very specific requirements about testing for lead and what happens when lead levels rise above “actionable levels,” but even low levels of lead exposure are not considered safe. What’s more, SDWA depends on hundreds of small and sometimes cash-strapped water authorities to monitor water quality and report and address problems.

Washington DC Lead Crisis Alerts Nation to Health Risks

In one high profile public health failure that in 2004, The Washington Post revealed that the city water authority had been aware of dangerous levels of lead in the water of many District homes for more than 2 years without warning residents. DC health officials responded to the revelation by warning residents to flush their water pipes and filter water for drinking and cooking. Unfortunately for many kids, the damage may already have been done.

"In some high-risk neighborhoods, the number of toddlers and infants with blood-lead concentrations that can cause irreversible IQ loss and developmental delays more than doubled after harmful levels of lead began leaching into the city's drinking water in 2001," reported the Post.

Subsequent investigations determined that a change in city water treatment the prior year had caused lead levels in homes served by lead pipes to skyrocket as the new disinfectant corroded old pipes. By failing to adequately assess the risk and inform the public of the danger, the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority had needlessly exposed DC citizens to unsafe levels of lead, including thousands of children and pregnant women for whom exposure is most dangerous.

Risk from Lead Water Pipes Around The United States

Dozens of U.S. cities have lead pipes running throughout their aging drinking water systems. A change in water chemistry, partial replacement of lead pipes, or general wear and tear can cause lead levels to spike. Overall the EPA has estimates that 40 million Americans are exposed to drinking water lead concentrations that it considers to be a health risk. And the Centers for Disease Control has found a correlation between lead in drinking water and the blood lead levels of affected household members.

What to Do if You Suspect Lead in Your Water

Your water utility may be able to test your household lead level for you. If not, there are many tests available from mail-order labs and test kits are often sold at local hardware stores. If you suspect you or your child has been exposed to lead, either from water or other sources, your doctor or child's doctor can screen for lead with a blood test.

In the mean time, the EPA recommends the following steps for reducing lead exposure:

  • "Use cold water for drinking or cooking. Never cook or mix infant formula using hot water from the tap.
  • "Make it a practice to run the water at each tap before use.
  • "Do not consume water that has sat in your home’s plumbing for more than six hours. First, make sure to run the water until you feel the temperature change before cooking, drinking, or brushing your teeth, unless otherwise instructed by your utility."

Additionally, EPA recommends only filters that reduce lead according to NSF testing standards. The black berkey water filters meet that standard, and then some.

One thought on “Lead in Our Drinking Water: Lead Pipes and the Health Risk from Contaminated Water - Part 2 of 2”

  • Richard Rabin

    There is another culprit in the story of lead in our water: the lead industry. For decades after the lead companies knew that lead pipes could cause lead poisoning they continued to sell and promote lead pipes. (see The Lead Industry and Lead Water Pipes: "A Modest Campaign"; Am J Public Health. 2008;98:1584–1592)

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