Lead is no longer put in paint or gasoline. But as Tacoma residents know, it can still be found in soil and in pipes, legacies of the Asarco smelter and outdated plumbing.
To help answer reader concerns and questions, The News Tribune interviewed a pediatrician who specializes in children’s environmental health and a state water quality expert.
Here’s what they had to say:
Dr. Catherine Karr is a pediatrician and associate professor at the University of Washington. She also is director of the Northwest Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit, which works to reduce environmental health risks to children.
Q: Who is most vulnerable for lead poisoning?
A: Children, definitely. And then within children — because the health concerns are with the developing brain — the fetal period and the first couple of years of life. A lot of the emphasis is on exposure in those periods.
That’s not to say the brain stops developing and we don’t see impacts on children as they age. But the intensity of that development is the greatest very early in life. The most vulnerable segment of the population is the infant who is fed formula reconstituted with water that may be contaminated.
Q: How does lead affect the body?
A: It’s a neurotoxin. It interferes with normal processes of brain development — brain cells as they grow and develop and get to the places they need to be and do the things they need to do. It disrupts that.
Q: What symptoms would you see in a child who has been exposed over a long period of time from water or ingesting paint dust?
A: The kinds of things we see are children’s behavior: less attentive, ADHD-type behavior, effects on learning ability, reading ability. These can be pretty subtle. The brain just doesn’t work as well as it should.
Q: Is there a safe level of lead in the body?
A: There is no safe level of exposure. We see effects at those very low levels. There’s still that dose-response going on at that low end.
Q: Aside from ingestion, are there other ways to get it in your body? Can you get exposed in the shower?
A: It’s more of an ingestion problem for sure. The other way it can happen is that you can breathe in lead from fumes.
If you have a piece of wood that has old lead on it and then it’s used for your campfire, you can put that lead into an airborne particle or gaseous form. But for most children, the way they are exposed is by ingestion. The lead is contaminating the house dust or the soil or their community or it’s in their water.
Q: Can the damage be reversed?
A: No. But there are other things that can protect you.
A lot of things go into a child’s reading ability: a good healthy diet and adequate nutrition, parents can read to the child, (intellectual) stimulation. Genetics play a role as well. Parents can do a lot of things to promote their child’s healthy development, and that can have a powerful effect.
Q: What does a blood test show and does it show current or total exposure?
A: The bottom line is that a blood test today is a very helpful test to know their exposure now and gives you a little sense of their overall exposure.
Lead you ingest today gets absorbed into your bloodstream, and then it makes its way to other places in your body, like your kidneys and the brain. Eventually it moves into long-term storage into bone, where it’s locked up and stays there for a long, long time.
So if a kid is in an environment where they are seeing exposure repeatedly, the blood level is a good indicator of that. Now, once the exposure goes away completely over time, that lead level should decrease because the lead is moving out of the blood compartment into those other places.
Q: Where can I take my kid to be tested?
A: Whoever takes care of their child’s routine medical care.
Q: Do adults need to be tested?
A: Adults can still have problems with lead exposure. It’s definitely an issue in occupational settings.
Exposures need to be higher (for ill effects) because we don’t have the brain development going on. The adult who should be tested is a pregnant woman.
Derrick Dennis is a water quality manager for the state Department of Health. He is a national expert on lead in drinking water.
Q: When water leaves the ground, rivers or reservoirs does it contain lead?
A: Hardly any, if any. In general, there’s no lead in the water coming from the main that the city is pumping to your house.
Q: How does it get into the water?
A: Water is the most powerful solvent on the planet. It breaks (metal) down. The longer it stays in contact with that metal, the more it will break it down. That’s where you end up getting the lead.
Q: At what point does lead enter drinking water?
A: That corrosion starts when it starts entering that service line going to the “gooseneck” (pipe) and then getting in the internal plumbing in the home.
Q: Aside from the gooseneck, what are other sources?
A: For the far majority, it comes from homes that used copper pipes that are lead-soldered and plumbing fixtures with leaded brass.
Q: If I am a homeowner who has no idea on my pipes or fixtures, what should I do? Rip everything out to be safe, quit using water or get tested?
A: If they are concerned about the gooseneck, I would contact the utility. If you are in an older home you can look at the fixtures.
If you have a home built in 1920 and it still has the same plumbing fixtures, there could be a lot of leaded brass in those. But I would definitely encourage people first to sample before they start tearing out fixtures.
More than likely, if there’s lead in their home, it’s coming from the interior plumbing.
Q: What other factors contribute to lead leaching from the pipes and fixtures?
A: The higher your pH, the less corrosive your water will be.
Q: What sort of regulations govern testing and acceptable levels?
A: The main rule that governs city water systems is the Lead and Copper Rule. Systems are required to sample at target homes on a periodic basis.
Ninety percent of those samples have to remain below the lead action level, which is 15 parts per billion. If they go over that level, then they have to look at their system as a whole.
Q: They have to test from inside homes?
A: Yes. They are targeting homes built from 1982 to 1986, when copper pipes with lead solder were used, or if they have a lead service line.
Q: Aside from lead, copper and pH what else is tested for?
A: A lot of the things a water system monitors for — nitrate or arsenic — are coming out of the ground from contamination from the rocks and from human activity. The water system is responsible for not getting that into your home.
Lead and copper is different in the sense it’s not coming from the main. Water systems have always asked this question and challenged us before. It’s partly because they don’t understand the reason for the rule. They always say, “Why I am responsible for the house?”
The way I explain it is that you’re not responsible for plumbing in their home. But you are responsible for the nature of the water you serve to them. And if that water causes leaching of materials in their home, then you are responsible.
The rule requires them to control the corrosive nature of their water so that it doesn’t have that impact.
Q: If I don't live in Tacoma, how do I find out if my water system might have issues?
A: The Lead and Copper Rule does not apply to systems with less than 15 connections, less than 25 people per year. … It’s based on connections and population.
The only sampling they have, if any, is coliform and nitrate on a semi-routine basis. They (the residents and/or operators) can certainly test their water. It’s the same message: If you’re concerned, have your water tested by a certified drinking water laboratory.
Q: Why a lab? Are those home testing kits reliable?
A: No. Those are very dangerous. They can give you a false sense of security or scare the crap out of you.
Q: How do I assess the safety of my fixtures?
A: Congress passed the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act that went into effect in January 2014. That reduced the lead allowable in pipes, plumbing fixtures and fittings.
Q: Should I test every fixture in the house or is one enough?
A: That law only focused on (fixtures) used for human consumption. So, an outside spigot, tub faucet, shower … those are not required to be lead-free. So, just stick to the ones you’re drinking from.
Q: Do filtration systems, from a whole house system to Brita pitchers, work?
A: People would need to know if they are certified to remove lead. I don’t know if there’s too many of those Brita filters that remove lead. They mostly are for aesthetics — the removal of chlorine.
Q: Do you filter at home or do you drink from the tap?
A: I don’t use a filter system in my house.
In general, we have really good water in this state, in this country. The fact that we have utilities, like Tacoma and Seattle, that can produce millions of gallons of water every day to serve millions of people who can drink that water and not get sick is pretty amazing.
Q: If you suspect you may have a problem with lead, is there anything you can do to mitigate it?
A: Anytime you have water sitting in pipes it has the potential to have more metals in it than it if it was flowing throughout the day.
You don’t necessarily have to run it from the kitchen tap. If you get up in the morning and go to the bathroom, take a shower, and then you run the faucet a little before you fill the coffee pot, you’re probably going to be fine.
Q: What about hot water?
A: Don’t use hot water for cooking, and never use it for infant formula. That is a complete no-no. (Heat increases leaching of lead into the water.)