And can it happen in your town?
The recent news about high lead levels in the Flint, Michigan, water supply has outraged people everywhere and raised concerns about lead poisoning in general.
Here’s what we know: The water in Flint became contaminated in April 2014, when the city switched its water supply from Detroit to the Flint River in an effort to save money. The city switched back to Detroit water in October 2015, but Michigan health officials say all children who drank Flint’s water during those 18 months have been exposed to contaminated water.
Though the switch back to Detroit water was made last fall, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder didn’t declare a state of emergency until January 5 of this year, with the National Guard mobilized on January 12 to distribute water and water filters. President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency on January 16, which lead to $5 million in federal aid being freed up to assist with the crisis. Though the aid and the water filters are appreciated, there’s no quick and easy solution to the problem.
Because lead can be harmful to humans when ingested or inhaled, and lead poisoning is detrimental to neurological development in children and fetuses, dangers remain.
“Do we know how many children will actually have a long-term effect from this exposure?” asked Eden Wells of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in a press conference. “No. We do not.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, young children are at the greatest risk of health problems related to lead exposure, including serious brain and kidney damage. Lead poisoning happens when the metal builds up in the body, usually over time. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious problems.
And the lead crisis isn’t limited to Flint. Residents of Sebring, Ohio, are up in arms about the discovery of lead in the water in their town last summer. Their anger is due to the fact that they were not told of the problem until after testing was completed. Residents of Washington, D.C., drank lead-contaminated water from 2001 to 2004, when a switch in water disinfectant from chlorine to chloramine caused lead to be released.
Elevated levels of lead were found in blood of a child in Durham, North Carolina, in 2006; the lead was traced back to drinking water in the home and ultimately attributed to a change in the chemical used by the city’s utilities to clear the water of its natural turbidity. And in Lakehurst Acres, a public housing development in Maine, a water treatment system that removes arsenic resulted in elevated blood lead levels in several children and adults.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 4 million households in this country have high levels of lead. Though water utilities, the Environmental Protection Agency and the CDC claim to deliver clean water and safeguard our health, the truth is that weak federal regulations and misinformation leave millions of U.S. citizens vulnerable to acute exposures to lead in drinking water—much like what happened in Flint.
“Most people think the current EPA standards for lead in drinking water are set to protect public health,” said Yanna Lambrinidou, adjunct assistant professor of Science and Technology Studies at Virginia Tech and a longtime water safety advocate. “So if a water utility says its water meets the lead standard, people accept this and don’t worry about the water.”
As too many families are now discovering, this is disturbing and detrimental.
“Lead is a toxin to the human body and especially harmful to children due to their developing brain and nervous system,” said Marcie Billings, M.D., a pediatrician with Mayo Clinic’s Children’s Center. Lead can affect nearly every system in the body, but in children, the most serious effects occur on the neurological system, leading to poor concentration, behavioral issues, effect on IQ, effect on academic achievement, developmental delay and, in severe cases, encephalopathy. Worse: “The effects of lead are not reversible.” Dr. Billings said.
So how can you protect your family from lead exposure? Follow these tips:
- Check your house. Homes built before 1978 are most likely to contain lead. Professional cleaning, proper paint stabilization techniques and repairs done by a certified contractor can reduce exposure. If you discover your home does contain lead paint, don’t remove it by sanding or using a blow torch.
- Keep children out of contaminated areas. Don’t allow them near old windows, old porches, dirt next to an old home or areas with peeling or chipping paint.
- Filter water. Ion exchange filters, reverse osmosis filters and distillation can remove lead from water effectively. If you don’t use a filter and live in an older home, run cold tap water for 15 to 30 seconds before using it.
- Keep your home clean. Regularly wipe floors and other surfaces with a damp mop or sponge.
- Encourage good hygiene. Make sure your child washes his or her hands and face after playing outside or with pets and before eating and sleeping. Regularly wash children’s toys.
- Eat a balanced diet. A diet high in iron and calcium may decrease a child’s absorption of lead.