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Why Are So Many Schools Testing Positive For Lead In Drinking Water?

Why Are So Many Schools Testing Positive For Lead In Drinking Water?

Eric Roy, Ph.D.  |  Scientific Founder  

***Modified on August 23, 2018 to include more cities and add a video ***

With more schools in major cities testing positive for lead contamination (e.g. New York CityCleveland, Chicago, Portland, Newark, San Francisco), we get lots of questions about what’s happening.  The goal of this article is to shed some light on why lead contamination in schools is such an important thing.

Children Are Most Sensitive To Lead Poisoning

There is no level of lead that is known to be safe for children.  Period. 

Since lead contamination in tap water entered the spotlight in 2015, people have incorrectly presented EPA's regulatory limits as safe/not safe thresholds.  While a simple safe/unsafe threshold would certainly make things more simple, the 15 ppb threshold was never intended to be a "safe level."  It’s a limit that EPA established to evaluate city-wide corrosion control practices and it allows a city to have up to 10% of samples test ABOVE the 15 ppb threshold, and still be in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule.  For reference, the American Academy of Pediatrics is calling for regulatory changes that ensure that water never tests above 1 ppb in schools.

Most Schools Are Old & Old Plumbing Often Contains Lead

According to data assembled by the U.S. Department of Education, the average age of a Public School building in the United States is 44 years old, a time when lead-based plumbing was the norm.  Even in newer schools, lead contamination can creep into water because lead wasn’t completely phased out of plumbing connections, fittings, and valves until 2014.

Weekends & Summers Allow Water To Sit Stagnant For Extended Periods Of Time In Schools

As many now realize, lead accumulates in water when it leaches from lead-containing pipes, valves, and plumbing connections.  The longer water sits stagnant in pipes, the more lead it can accumulate.  Unlike in homes, where water is used on a daily basis and never sits stagnant for more than a few hours each night, water in schools goes completely unused for long periods of time each weekend, vacation, and summer.  These frequent long periods where water is not used are detrimental for two reasons: 

1.  Lead has more time to accumulate as water sits stagnant in lead-containing pipes

2.  The lack of flushing prevents corrosion measures from rebuilding the protective layer that prevents lead from leaching out in the first place. 

Most Schools Do Not Test Water Properly For Lead Contamination

It sounds crazy, but most schools don’t test for lead contamination in water.  When asked by a reporter about testing the school’s water for lead, an elementary school superintendent went on record to say that "We do not test because it has never been brought up as a concern, nor is it a requirement to do so."

The reality is, even if schools choose to test for lead contamination, it’s much more complicated than testing in a residential home.  In a residential home, EPA sampling protocols require that water be unused for 6 hours, in order to simulate the night and work day periods where water commonly sits stagnant in pipes.  However, this protocol does not mimic how water is used in schools, because in addition to the 12 hours each school night the water goes unused, it sits stagnant for roughly 60 hours each weekend, and much longer periods over school vacations and summer.  

How Can Schools Reduce Lead Contamination In Drinking Water?

Realistically, it’s probably cost-prohibitive for schools to replace all lead-containing plumbing or buy and maintain effective point of use drinking water filters that remove lead.  When school administrators approach us for solutions, we always advise them to take immediate steps to identify lead containing plumbing, test their water for lead, and to implement regular pipe flushing protocols.

We encourage everyone to call their city's school department to better understand if and how lead is being tested for in schools.  Because testing in schools is very complicated, we encourage people to ask for specifics of the testing program and actual results, not blanket assurances that everything is ok.   As always, we encourage all readers to take advantage of our “Help No Matter What” approach to technical support.  Technical support will answer your questions through email (support@hydroviv.com), free of charge, even if you have no plans to purchase a Hydroviv water filter.

Originally published on January 28, 2017.  Updated May 9, 2017

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Key Things To Know About Getting Your Water Tested

Key Things To Know About Getting Your Water Tested

Rebecca Labranche | Laboratory Director, A&L Laboratory   

How Is Drinking Water Regulated?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets regulatory limits for over 90 contaminants in water provided by public water systems.  The EPA sets these limits in accordance with the Safe Drinking Water Act to protect public health in the communities that are using this water. The EPA limits are divided into two main categories.  National Primary Drinking Water Regulations are legally enforceable standards that apply to public water systems. Primary standards protect public health by limiting the levels of contaminants in drinking water that negatively affect human health. National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations are non-enforceable guidelines regulating contaminants that may cause cosmetic effects (such as skin or tooth discoloration) or aesthetic effects (such as taste, odor, or color) in drinking water. EPA recommends secondary standards to water systems but does not require systems to comply. In addition to the federal EPA standards, The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) gives individual states the opportunity to establish their own drinking water standards if they are not more lenient than those set by the EPA's national standards.

So how do these federal and state regulations effect private well-owners?  These same limits and guidelines used for public water are also adopted by most institutions and lenders for home water testing as a way to determine if the property provides potable, safe water. When a home goes up for sale, if the buyer is financing, they will likely be required to test the water. While lenders may be concerned about a potable water source in order to protect their investment, there are no official rules or regulations for determining potability of private wells. Many states and towns do not even require sampling of private wells after installation. It is the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain their well and water supply. 

How Often Should Home Water Testing Be Conducted?

Private well water should be tested a minimum of once per year. Drinking water supplies obtained from shallow dug wells and surface water sources should be tested more frequently as they are more susceptible to contamination. Annual testing of both dug and drilled wells should check for the most common contaminants which are bacteria, nitrates and nitrites. Even if your water has consistently been safe to drink in the past these parameters could change without you knowing and affect the safety of your water. New drilled wells should be tested with a more comprehensive water test which includes bacteria, nitrates, nitrites, metals, minerals and radon. This test identifies many common primary and secondary contaminants typically found in the bedrock surrounding the well.  This comprehensive test should be repeated every 3 – 5 years to ensure the well is still providing safe water.

What Are The Most Common Types Of Drinking Water Contaminants?

Drinking water contaminants can be divided into several categories: Inorganic Chemicals, Organic Chemicals, Radionuclides and Microorganisms. Testing for every possible analyte would be prohibitively expensive but we have put together a comprehensive test package which covers common problems found in our area.  

Total Coliform

E.coli

pH

Nitrate-N

Nitrite-N

Copper

Iron

Manganese

Lead

Arsenic

Hardness

Magnesium

Calcium

Chloride

Fluoride

Uranium

Sodium

Radon

 

 

 

Laboratories throughout the United States will offer similar packages based on the geology in their area.

What Is The Process For Analyzing Drinking Water?  

The process of analyzing drinking water varies by laboratory and their methods used.  However, the basic premise is the same for all of them.  The first step is to obtain a water test kit from the certified drinking water laboratory that you intend to use for the analysis.  Home water testing kits are specific to each laboratory and their methods so it is important not to use another laboratory’s bottles. These test kits come with all the information that is needed to collect the sample and get it back to the laboratory in the required time frame.  The sampling instructions are usually step by step and easy to follow. Once the water is received by the laboratory it will be analyzed for the requested parameters and report will be generated and sent back to the client. The typical turn-a-round time for a comprehensive water test is 2-3 business days.  

Using a certified laboratory is very important.  They are monitored by their state and undergo periodic inspections to ensure that they are producing the highest quality data. During these inspections their instruments, standard operating procedures, lab technicians, quality control documentation and reporting procedures are reviewed and evaluated. If anything is found to be out of compliance certification for the laboratory can be revoked.  In addition to inspections, they also have to complete proficiency tests for each method they conduct to prove that they can perform the method properly and obtain results within the specified limits.  

What Are The Risks Associated With Consuming And/Or Using Contaminated Water?

The risks vary greatly depending which contaminants you have in your water. Common health effects include gastrointestinal illness, reproductive problems, neurological disorders and cancer.  These health problems pose a greater threat to young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems.  The health effects of drinking contaminated water can range from no physical impact to severe illness or even death.

Some of the effects of drinking contaminated water are known almost immediately. Immediate health related issues generally stem from contamination by pathogens such as total coliform and E.coli.  Symptoms include gastrointestinal and stomach illnesses such as nausea, vomiting, cramps, and diarrhea.  

Other contaminants pose health effects that may not be observed for many years.  Some of the most common ones are:

Arsenic in water occurs naturally as well as from industrial activities. Studies have shown that chronic or repeated ingestion of water with arsenic over a person’s lifetime is associated with increased risk of cancer (of the skin, bladder, lung, kidney, nasal passages, liver or prostate) and non-cancerous effects (diabetes, cardiovascular, immunological and neurological disorders).

Lead can occur due to corrosion of lead containing household plumbing and by industrial pollution. Major toxic effects include anemia, neurological dysfunction/damage and renal impairment.

Uranium is a tasteless, colorless, odorless contaminant. Drinking water with uranium amounts exceeding 30ug/L can lead to increased cancer risk, liver damage, or both.

Copper has both long term and short term effects. Some people with short term exposure, experience gastrointestinal distress, and with long-term exposure may experience liver or kidney damage. It is typically introduced into the water from household plumbing systems.

Fluoride has been shown to reduce tooth decay in children's teeth if they receive an adequate level. The optimal concentration, as recommended by CDC is approximately 1.1 mg/L. In the range of 2.0-4.0 mg/L of fluoride, staining of tooth enamel is possible. Above 4.0 mg/L, studies have shown the possibility of skeletal fluorosis, as well as the staining of teeth.

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. High levels of radon gas occur naturally in Maine soil and water, and can move up into a house from the ground. The house then traps the radon in the air inside. Radon gas can also dissolve into well water, which is then released into the air when you use the water.

What Should I Do If The Laboratory Finds Something In My Water?

If tests on your water indicate problems, the next step is to determine what type of system you need to treat the water. This can be a difficult decision because there is a wide variety of water treatment devices on the market today. Water purifiers range from relatively low-cost, simple filter devices for a kitchen faucet to more expensive, sophisticated systems that treat water from its point of entry into a home. Keep in mind, no one water treatment device can solve every problem.  

Rebecca Labranche, the Laboratory Director for A & L Laboratory. A & L Laboratory which specializes in drinking water analysis for both public systems and private wells, throughout the State of Maine.

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4 Things To Know Before Testing Your Home’s Water For Lead

4 Things To Know Before Testing Your Home’s Water For Lead

Eric Roy, Ph.D.  |  Scientific Founder

Since the lead crisis in Flint put lead contamination in the national spotlight, our Tech Support Team is frequently asked questions about testing a home’s water for lead.   Many who reach out to us do so after having been duped by "testing companies" looking to make a quick buck.  This article discusses how to test your home's water for lead accurately & cost-effectively.  

Check For Free City Programs

Some large cities (like Washington DC, NYC, Chicago) have programs in place where residents can submit samples to the city for free lead testing.  We strongly encourage people to take advantage of this free service if it's available to them.  

Ignore Marketing Gimmicks And Find An Accredited Laboratory For Lead Testing

Most of the consumer “test kits” you find at hardware stores or large online retailers are almost always for low cost “screening” tests that are notorious for false alarms and inconclusive results, which allows the lab to upsell you on a more sensitive and accurate test.  Don't be fooled by marketing claims that a kit is "EPA Recognized" or "Tests to EPA Standards"... they don't mean anything.  With lead, you should simply find an accredited water quality lab in your area, and request their test kit.   We recommend finding a lab that uses EPA Method 200.8, which is an Inductively Coupled Plasma, Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS) based method that gives accurate results at low concentrations.  

Sample Properly From The Faucet 

Because lead contamination occurs when water sits in lead-containing plumbing pipes, solder, and connections, it’s important that you sample from the faucet and collect at a time when your home’s water has not been used for at least 6 hours (like first thing in the morning)

We recommend collecting 3 samples:  one as soon as you turn on the faucet (also known as a "first draw"), and separate samples after the water has been running for 30 seconds, and 2 minutes.   The reason for collecting multiple samples in this interval is to sample water that sat overnight in different parts of the home’s plumbing and service line. 

Get Help Interpreting Lead Test Results

If all samples come back at zero, you’re probably in the clear for lead.  This is a good thing!

If any of the samples come back above zero, the interpretation gets quite a bit more complicated because EPA’s statements on lead toxicity and regulations are not in alignment.  On one hand, EPA states that there is no safe level of lead, which would imply that lead concentrations should be zero.  However, EPA has established a 15 ppb “Action Level” for lead… which most people (and some media outlets) interpret to mean “if my water is under 15 ppb, it’s safe.”  Unfortunately, that’s simply not true, because the 15 ppb Action Level threshold was established to tell whether or not city-wide corrosion control measures are having problems, not if a single sample contains too much lead.  Furthermore, the EPA allows for up to 10% of samples collected under the Lead and Copper Rule to test above the 15 part per billion Action Level (with no upper limit), and the city remains in compliance.

The reality is, if your water has lead in it after letting water sit in pipes for 6 hours or more, we highly recommend taking steps to reduce exposure, whether it's using a point of use water filter that is rated to remove lead, or allowing your water to run for 2 minutes before using it for drinking, cooking, or washing food.  

We encourage everyone to take advantage of Hydroviv’s “Help No Matter What” approach to Technical Support when it comes to water.  Even though we do not offer lead testing, our water quality experts are happy to give advice through all stages of the lead testing process, free of charge, to make sure that you get answers in the most efficient way possible.  We do not take money from test labs for referrals.

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Things To Know Before Replacing Your Home's Lead Service Pipe

The US Senate recently approved more than $100M  to be spent on replacing lead service pipes for homes in Flint. While lead pipe replacement programs can be a great long-term solution to eliminate a source of lead contamination, it doesn’t make all problems go away.  Here's the lead water service pipe information you need to know if you are considering replacing your home's lead service pipe:

Service Pipe Replacement Is Probably A Shared Responsibility 

The diagram below (from DC Water’s website) shows how a home water service pipe (also called a water service line) connects the city's water main to a private home.  In most cases, the city owns the section of pipe up to the property line, but the section on the homeowner’s property belongs to the homeowner.  When it comes to replacing a lead service pipe, some cities (including Washington DC) have programs in place to coordinate efforts so the private and public sections can be replaced at the same time.

Lead Service Line Diagram

Image From: https://www.dcwater.com/waterquality/household_water_quality.pdf

Lead Concentrations Often Go Up For Months After Replacing A Lead Service Pipe

It seems counter-intuitive, but lead levels typically go up for at least a few months (and sometimes over a year) after a lead service line is replaced. This is because the protective coating/buildup inside the lead pipe is disturbed, and the debris/freshly uncovered pipe surface can contaminate the water with lead. While this spike in lead levels is largest when a service line is partially replaced, we also have users who have seen a spike in lead levels after a complete service line replacement.

Your Home Can Still Have Lead In Its Plumbing 

If a home is old enough to have a lead water service pipe, there is a good chance that there is lead somewhere else in the home's plumbing as well. While most cities stopped installing lead service pipes in the 1950s-1960s, residential plumbing standards lagged behind for several decades. For example, in plumbing that predates 1986, solder used to join copper pipes commonly contained 50% lead (it’s actually called 50/50 solder). Since then, there have been reductions in the amount of lead that can be used in residential plumbing connections and fixtures, with the most recent phase out taking place in 2014.

Lead Can Be Introduced 'Downstream' Of A Water Filter

This seems obvious, but it’s something that’s often forgotten when people inquire about whole house filters.  This is why we recommend that people who are looking to filter lead from their water install a filter at the point of use (connected to the faucet), not at the point where the water enters the home.

Should You Replace Your Home's Lead Service Pipe?

For the reasons listed above, we highly recommend that people treat replacing their home's lead service pipe as part of an overall lead reduction strategy, not as a silver bullet.  If a person decides to replace the lead home water service pipe, we also recommend using point of use custom water filters for all faucets used for drinking, and to monitor lead levels in their home's water for 18 months after the pipe is replaced.

As always, we encourage everyone to take advantage of Hydroviv’s “Help No Matter What” approach to technical support. If you have any questions about lead home water service pipes, water filtration, or water quality in general, our Technical Support Team is happy to answer your questions, even if you have no desire to buy Hydroviv’s products!   Drop us a line (Support@hydroviv.com) or use the live chat functionality.

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