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Lead: What You Need To Know About This Toxic Heavy Metal With A Long History

**Updated 10/17/18 to include video**

Wendy Spicer, M.S.  |  Scientific Contributor   

Where Do I Find Lead?

Lead is a common ingredient in paints, gasoline, ceramic products, caulking, and pipe solder.  Most commonly, lead is used in the production of lead-acid batteries, ammunition, metal products (solder and pipes), and x-ray shielding. An estimated 1.52 million metric tons of lead were used for various industrial applications in the United States in 2004. The majority of that tonnage (83%) was used for lead-acid battery production.

While useful, lead is highly toxic. Federal, state, and local governments have worked to reduce the use of lead in many products over the past 40 years. Lead screening programs have helped to both prevent and treat exposed individuals.  Despite making great progress to create awareness of the dangers of lead exposure, roughly 25% of households in the United States with children under the age of six contain significant amounts of lead-contaminated paint, dust, or soil.

How Are People Exposed To Lead?

Exposure to lead occurs mainly via inhalation of lead-contaminated dust particles or aerosols and ingestion of lead-contaminated food, water, and paints. Adults absorb 35-50% of lead intake through contamination in drinking water and the absorption rate for children is potentially even greater.

Factors like age and physiological status increase the likelihood of absorption. In the human body, the greatest amount of lead is in our bones. Lead is also absorbed by soft tissue organs like the kidneys, liver, heart, and brain. The nervous system is very susceptible to lead poisoning. Prolonged lead exposure can cause headaches, poor attention span, irritability, memory loss, and apathy. Lead exposure is especially harmful to infants, fetuses, and children due to the developing nature of their brains.

What Are Adverse Health Effects Of Lead Poisoning?

Unfortunately, lead poisoning remains a common pediatric health problem in the United States. Pregnant mothers exposed to lead can transfer this heavy metal to their developing fetus.

The effects of lead exposure in children include, but are not limited to:

  • Lower IQ
  • Delayed or impaired neurological development
  • Decreased hearing, speech and language disabilities
  • Poor attention span, learning disabilities, and anti-social behaviors

Adults exposed to lead may experience gastrointestinal diseases and/or damage to the cardiovascular system, reproductive system, brain, kidneys, and liver.

One of the mechanisms by which lead induces toxicity in the body is that it essentially mimics other metals like calcium, leading to interference with many major biochemical processes. This interference can also inhibit enzyme activity, and cause cellular damage. It can often cause problems with bones, replacing calcium. Studies have shown that lead might also induce renal tumors in rodents, and is likely carcinogenic to humans as well.

How Can I Avoid/Minimize Lead Exposure?

From Lead Paint & Contaminated Soil

  • Keep your home well-maintained. If your home has lead-based paint, check regularly for peeling paint and fix problems promptly. Avoiding sanding lead paint, which makes lead airborne. If in doubt, hire a company with experience removing lead-based paints from homes
  • Wash hands and toys which may have come into contact surfaces or soil containing lead
  • Prevent children from playing on bare soil. Provide them with a sandbox that's covered when not in use. Plant grass or cover bare soil with mulch
  • Remove shoes before entering the house. This will help keep lead-based soil outside

From Contaminated Drinking Water

Hydroviv makes it our business to make your water safe. As always, feel free to take advantage of our “help no matter what” approach to technical support!  Our water nerds will work to answer your questions, even if you have no intention of purchasing one of our water filters.  Reach out about information regarding lead in water or any other topic by dropping us an email (hello@hydroviv.com) or through our live chat. You can also engage with us on Twitter or Facebook!

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Recent Lead Problems In Schools: Nashville, Tennessee

Emma Schultz, M.S.  | Scientific Contributor

There has recently been a spate of schools testing positive for lead contamination in drinking water across the country, at dangerously high levels. Since the Flint, Michigan water crisis brought lead contamination and lead poisoning into the spotlight in 2015, there has been a push to increase water testing in schools - and rightly so. It’s not likely that high test results are new; it is unfortunately instead likely that this has been an ongoing undetected problem. EPA estimates that 90,000 public schools, as well as half a million child care facilities, are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act due to utilizing a municipal water utility. While these statistics are dated (2002), they are still referenced by EPA. Since the utility is the responsible party for testing water, the school itself is not required to test, unless there are more stringent local laws or they voluntarily choose to do so. Most do not, or if they do, their results may not be reflective of normal lead levels. Water frequently stagnates in school pipes, due to nights, weekends, and summers where water usage is drastically diminished. That stagnation leads to leaching of lead in the school's water, and therefore lead accumulation, when there are lead pipes or lead-containing valves and fittings.

It is important to note that there is no such thing as a safe level of lead in drinking water. It bears repeating: no level of lead is safe, especially when it comes to children, who are most sensitive to lead poisoning. The EPA limit of 15 parts per billion, set in 1991, is much higher than EPA and CDC have admitted is safe (they agree, there is no safe level of lead). In addition, 10% of samples are legally allowed to exceed the 15 ppb threshold without resulting in any utility violations. In contrast, The American Academy of Pediatrics proposes that lead in school drinking water should not exceed 1 ppb.

Lead Contamination In Nashville, Tennessee Schools

One city that recently made headlines for lead contamination in public schools is Nashville, Tennessee. Schools were tested for lead during the summer of 2017. Examples of frighteningly high lead levels are as follows (note, these are individual tap results):

  • Park Avenue Elementary: 170 ppb 
  • Spectrum Academy: 349 ppb 
  • Chadwell Elementary: 272 ppb 
  • Cole Elementary: 106 ppb 
  • Neelys Bend Elementary: 115 ppb

In addition, 11 fountains exceeded 5 ppb of lead at McMurray Middle’s annex, and 13 fountains at Hattie Cotton Elementary had greater than 5 ppb. Haywood Elementary had very high lead averages, with 26 drinking fountains testing greater than 5 ppb of lead, 9 of which were over 15 ppb.

Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) reported that any tap showing lead levels above 15 ppb was subsequently disconnected, but shutting off one tap does not solve the problem. Public schools are often old, and old schools tend to have an old infrastructure, which includes lead-based plumbing. While MNPS does not state the age of their school buildings, several of the schools also made headlines this winter for being unable to heat their classrooms during a prolonged cold spell, with classroom temperatures dipping down to a frigid 46°. This aging infrastructure is putting students at risk in multiple way. Regarding lead in drinking water, MNPS has remained in the news because of a leaked recording where Executive Director of Facilities Dennis Neal plotted with staff to bypass the filtration systems on several dozen lead-filtering “filtration stations” that were installed in some of the more affluent schools (courtesy of parent donations) following the lead scare. Neal was concerned about the high cost of continuously filtering water across schools with high lead levels, and stated “People keep wanting these bottle fillers, but they are adamant about them being filtered. I’m saying we cannot support it.”

After the recording was leaked, Neal was put on administrative leave while MNPS investigated; he has since resigned. Issues remain with lead levels in schools though, and parents have every right to be concerned. MNPS District Spokesperson Michelle Michaud, in an interview with CBS This Morning, stated that filters aren’t actually needed, because the school district has reduced lead levels to under 15 ppb, and then claimed that filters can reduce the amount of lead in water no further than that. "Those filters are doing a good thing," Michaud said. "They are making the water taste better, but they are not filtering out more lead." This is in contrast to the fact sheet from one of their filtration providers, which states that lead levels will be reduced to 10 ppb or less.  Hydroviv filters, in comparison, have treated water with 200 ppb of lead, reducing the lead in water to an output of 0 ppb.

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Recent Lead Problems In Schools: Montgomery County, Maryland

Recent Lead Problems In Schools: Montgomery County, Maryland

Emma Schultz, M.S.

Many schools across the country have recently made the news for lead contamination in water, often at dangerously high levels. Since the Flint, Michigan water crisis brought lead contamination and lead poisoning into the spotlight in 2015, there has been a push to increase water testing in schools, for good reason. It’s unlikely that these high test results are new; it is much more likely that this has been an ongoing undetected problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 90,000 public schools (as well as half a million child care facilities) are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act due to utilizing a municipal water utility. While these statistics are dated (2002), they are still referenced by EPA. Since the utility is the responsible party for testing water, the school itself is not required to test, unless there are more stringent local laws or they voluntarily choose to do so. Most do not, or if they do, their results may not be reflective of normal lead levels. Water frequently stagnates in school pipes, due to nights, weekends, and summers where water usage is drastically diminished. That stagnation leads to leaching of lead, and therefore lead accumulation, when there are lead pipes or lead-containing valves and fittings. Many public schools across the country have an aging infrastructure, and with age comes the increased likelihood of lead-containing plumbing.


It is important to note that there is no such thing as a safe level of lead in drinking water. No level of lead is safe, especially when it comes to children, who are most sensitive to lead poisoning. The EPA limit of 15 parts per billion, set in 1991, is much higher than EPA and CDC have admitted is safe (they agree, there is no safe level of lead). In addition, 10% of samples are legally allowed to exceed the 15 ppb threshold without resulting in any utility violations. In contrast, The American Academy of Pediatrics proposes that lead in school drinking water should not exceed 1 ppb.

Lead Contamination In Montgomery County, Maryland Schools

Maryland’s governor, Larry Hogan, signed legislation in May 2017 mandating occasional testing of drinking water faucets in the state’s public and private schools. Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) began testing their 205 schools in February 2018, with an anticipated finish date of June 30th. Of their 205 facilities, drinking water test reports have been released so far for 21 schools.

While the nationwide Action Level for lead in municipal drinking water, as established by EPA, is 15 parts per billion, the Action Level for faucets in Maryland’s schools is set at 20 ppb. This is an amount agreed to by EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment, and it is also the amount recommended under EPA’s voluntary guidance for schools utilizing their own water supply per the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule.

Of the 21 MCPS schools with released results, 12 have test results with lead levels higher than 20 ppb. Some of these violations come from faucets that students do not normally interact with, though several may be used during food preparation. Test results, broken down by school, are as follows:


School

Individual Tap Results

Gaithersburg Elementary

2 classroom fountains tested above 20 ppb, at 83.6 and a staggering 253 ppb. Many fountains and faucets tested at <1 ppb. Other results varied from 1-13.9 ppb.

New Hampshire Estates Elementary

1 classroom fountain tested above 20 ppb, at 42.5 ppb. Many of the taps tested at <1 ppb, with some faucets and fountains varying from 1-11 ppb.

Pine Crest Elementary

2 taps tested above 20 ppb: one classroom fountain at 28.4 ppb, and an office faucet at 31.9 ppb. Many fountains and faucets tested at <1 ppb. Other results ranged from 1-12.8 ppb.

Rock View Elementary

1 classroom fauced tested above 20 ppb, at 40.6 ppb. The majority of taps tested at <1 ppb, with no other taps testing above 4.2 ppb. This school overall tested at very low lead levels, with one anomaly.

Rolling Terrace Elementary

2 taps tested above 20 ppb: one classroom faucet at 21.6 ppb, and a classroom fountain at 21.9 ppb. Many of the fountains and faucets tested at <1 ppb. Other results varied, with two faucets testing above 10 ppb, at 10.8 and 11.6 ppb.

Strathmore Elementary

2 faucets tested above 20 ppb: one classroom faucet at 30.3 ppb, and a kitchen faucet at 51.8 ppb. While a few classrooms tested at <1 ppb, most did not, with other results as high as 18.4, 10, and 16 ppb.

Summit Hill Elementary

2 classroom faucets tested above 20 ppb, at 32.4 and 21.5 ppb. Some of the taps tested at <1 ppb, with other results varying from 1-16.1 ppb. Classroom 5 had a faucet test at 16.1 ppb and a fountain test at 15.3 ppb.

Viers Mill Elementary

1 classroom faucet tested above 20 ppb, at 59.9 ppb. Many of the fountains and faucets tested at <1 ppb. Other results varied from 1-10.2 ppb.

Eastern Middle

4 faucets tested above 20 ppb, at 56.6, 24.2, 64.9, and 34.9 ppb. Some taps tested at <1 ppb, with others ranging from 1-17.7 ppb.

Parkland Middle

1 kitchen faucet tested above 20 ppb, at 33.9 ppb. The majority of taps tested at <1 ppb, with no other taps testing above 6 ppb. This school overall tested at very low lead levels, with one anomaly.

Sligo Middle

2 faucets tested above 20 ppb, a break room faucet at 50.6 ppb, and a kitchen faucet at 29 ppb. Some taps tested at <1 ppb, and no other taps tested above 5 ppb. This school overall tested at very low lead levels, with two anomalies.

Northwood High

1 workroom faucet tested above 20 ppb, at 128 ppb. The majority of taps tested at <1 ppb, with others ranging from 1-14.7 ppb.


While the remaining schools tested thus far are considered “safe” from high lead levels according to protocol, 19 of the 21 schools had test results above 10 ppb. For example, a water fountain in the Kindergarten area of Rosemont Elementary tested at 10.9 ppb, and a fountain in the music area of Washington Grove Elementary tested at 19.8 ppb.

Laytonsville Elementary, constructed in 1951 (and renovated in 1989, prior to the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule) had the following test results, which are perhaps most concerning of the schools technically considered to be “safe.” Several classroom faucets were found to have 15.7, 17.7, and 19.6 ppb of lead, while there were water fountains that tested at 13.9, 12.3, and 11.1 ppb. The average amount of lead across all Laytonsville Elementary faucets was over 5 ppb, while the average across all water fountains was 4.27 ppb. This suggests that the drinking water at Laytonsville Elementary may be more harmful to children than several of the schools that have made the news following the release of these test results. Also harmful to these children and their parents are news sources who have reported misleadingly on the story that “nine schools’ water tests did not show any elevated level of lead [including] Laytonsville E.S.” Once again, that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water, especially for children.

More test results should be released from MCPS soon.

 

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Lead Contamination In New York City School Water:  Interactive Map

Lead Contamination In New York City School Water: Interactive Map

Updated 5/17/2018 To Include Video

Cover image is screenshot of map taken from http://www.wnyc.org/story/wnyc-map-lead-contamination-water-fountains-nyc-public-schools/ taken at 23:59 on April 2.

Over the last several weeks and months, parents that send their children to New York City Public Schools have recieved letters notifying them that water from certain points of use in the schools (e.g. drinking fountains, hose bibs, faucets) have tested positive for high levels of lead.  We recently wrote a more detailed article  that focuses specifically on why so many schools have such high levels of lead in their water.

Even though there is no safe level of lead for children, New York City is quick to point out that their tap water meets all federal standards, despite over 100 points of use in schools testing over 15 parts per billion, more than 30 having measurements over 400 parts per billion, and some measurements over 6500 parts per billion.  This interactive map (updated regularly) shows the levels as the data are coming in.  

Lead Contamination New York City Schools

Screenshot from http://www.wnyc.org/story/wnyc-map-lead-contamination-water-fountains-nyc-public-schools/   |   April 3, 2017

 

While WNYC is doing a fantastic job assembling data, we encourage people to lean on Hydroviv's water quality experts for questions about water quality.  Our water quality experts will answer your questions, even if you have no intention of buying a Hydroviv Water Filter

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