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Toxic Taps: Lead is Still the Problem

December 11, 2012 | 201,260 views
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By Dr. Mercola

Lead is one of the most well characterized toxins known to harm and damage your brain and nervous system. It is so toxic that it has been banned in gasoline and children's toys, and lead paint hasn't been in use since 1978.

If you purchase a home that contains lead paint, the seller is required to disclose this because of the serious risks it can pose to your family's health if lead-containing paint chips or paint dust are inhaled or ingested...

You may think we have already legislated this problem away, but millions of water pipes known as service lines are still made from lead, and could be carrying contaminated water into your home on a daily basis.

While the government has attempted to remedy this problem with replacements, the solution has backfired; in addition to not removing all of the lead pipes, the replacement process may actually increase the health risks...

Your Water May Enter Your Home Via Lead Pipes

When your water leaves a treatment plant, it is transported into large pipes, or mains, that run under your city's streets. These are typically made of cast iron or concrete. The problem occurs when the water flows into smaller pipes known as service lines, which carry the water directly to your home.

An estimated 3.3 to 6.4 million service lines in the United States are made out of lead, and while they are found across the country, they're especially common in older neighborhoods in the Midwest and Northeast. This, of course, makes it very likely that your home's tap water is being contaminated by this poison virtually 24/7.

According to Investigative Reporting Workshop:1

"...fragments of corroded lead [from lead service lines] can chip off and be swept into tap water. Additional lead can also get in as the water runs across lead-soldered joints or comes into contact with brass or bronze fixtures. Until recently, such hardware was allowed to be advertised as 'lead-free,' even if it contained up to 8 percent lead. A federal law reducing the acceptable amount of lead in these plumbing fixtures to .25 percent will take effect in 2014, although Vermont and California have already adopted such rules."

So Why Aren't These Lead Pipes Being Replaced?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did initially require water utility companies to test homes for lead, and if the levels were elevated they would then have to reduce the lead contamination or replace a percentage of their lead service lines each year until the lead levels fell into acceptable ranges.

This was in 1991 (known as the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule). But the water companies fought back, and were able to derail the plan. The EPA amended the rule in 2000 to allow water companies to perform partial pipe replacements, which basically would replace the pipe running from the water main to a home's property line. If the rest of the line were to be replaced, it would be on the property owner's own dime.

Partial Pipe Replacements May Raise the Amount of Lead in Your Water – With No Warning

There have been at least 38,000 partial pipe replacements completed or planned in the United States (which would impact about 1.4 million people). There are many more voluntary replacements that are also completed during maintenance or emergency repairs. This may sound like a good thing, but the technique appears to be increasing – not decreasing -- water lead levels, at least initially. Investigative Reporting Workshop explained:

"Partial pipe replacements can physically shake loose lead fragments that have built up and laid dormant inside the pipe, pushing them into the homeowners' water, and spiking the lead levels, even where they previously were not high.

In addition, the type of partial replacement that joins old lead pipes to new copper ones, using brass fittings, 'spurs galvanic corrosion that can dramatically increase the amount of lead released into drinking water supplies,' according to research from Washington University. Similar findings have been published by researchers at the Virginia Tech and elsewhere."

You may or may not receive warning that a partial pipe replacement in your area could temporarily increase your water's lead levels; while utilities are supposed to let you know, an Investigative Reporting Workshop survey found that only one-third of notifications actually mentioned the potential for lead increase or health risks. As noted by the featured article1:

"...the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention completed a study in 2010 noting that children living in houses in Washington, D.C., where partial pipe replacements were carried out were three times as likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood as children living in houses in which the old lead service lines remained undisturbed, or were not made of lead."

Are Water Utilities "Gaming the System"?

You probably assume that if your water contains dangerous levels of lead, you'll be notified immediately, but this is not always the case. Investigations by Marc Edwards, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, have revealed some water utilities may be "gaming the system" by cherry-picking which houses it tests in order to keep any lead problems hidden. In another tactic, water companies are "gifting" lead service lines to homeowners, and saying they no longer have any responsibility for the pipes. Replacing lead service lines on your property can cost thousands of dollars, and may increase lead levels during, and after, the replacement.

The Health Risks of Lead

Lead is dangerous to both children and adults, and is linked to the following health problems:

For Pregnant Women:

  1. Miscarriages
  2. Premature births or low birth weight
  3. Brain damage, decreased mental abilities and learning difficulties
  4. Reduced growth in young children

For Children:

Damage to the brain and nervous system Behavior and learning problems, such as hyperactivity Slowed growth Hearing problems
Headaches Anemia Seizures Coma and even death


For Adults:

Hearing and vision impairment Reproductive problems (in both men and women) High blood pressure and hypertension Nerve disorders
Memory and concentration problems Poor muscle coordination Muscle and joint pain  

Mercury Also Continues to be Spewed Into Great Lakes

Just as you probably assumed lead had long been removed from water supplies, you might also be unaware that mercury – a known poison to your brain, just like lead – is still being released into the environment. A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council revealed that in the Great Lakes region alone, 144 coal-fired power plants pump more than 13,000 pounds of mercury into the air every year,2 contributing to dangerous air pollution and contaminated seafood. The report noted:

"In humans, [mercury] can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system. Young children and developing fetuses are most at risk from the effects of mercury, which can damage their brains."

The EPA recently introduced a standard that would require power plants to cut mercury emissions by 90 percent,3 a move they say will "avert up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks every year.”4 Unfortunately, no such rule has yet been established for the ongoing problem of lead in drinking water.

Water Purification Chemicals Pose Health Risks, Too

A new study in the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology5 found that pesticides and chemicals used to chlorinate water are associated with allergies. Higher levels of dichlorophenols in your body, as measured in your urine, correlate with increased risk of food allergies.6, 7 Dichlorophenols are chlorine-containing chemicals present in insect and weed control products, as well as being used by water chlorination plants.

Food allergies are on the rise, the most common being milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, tree nuts, soy, fish and shellfish. Symptoms can range from a mild rash to life-threatening anaphylactic reactions. According to the CDC, food allergy rates increased by 18 percent between 1997 and 2007.8

Tap water isn’t the only source of dichlorophenol exposure. You are also exposed to this chemical by consuming pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables. Just remember that your exposure is cumulative, so the more sources of chemical exposure you have, the higher your risk of adverse effects.

What Can You Do About Lead in Your Drinking Water?

You cannot control the municipal service pipes that carry your water, and you may not have the resources to replace lead pipes on your property. Further, the current technique for removal will make the problem worse before it gets better, and you may not be notified if these partial pipe replacements are taking place in your area. So what are your options? Ideally it would be best to get the majority of your water from a private well. Obviously this isn't an option for many, depending on where you live.

Fortunately Daniel Vitalis has done a great service and created a phenomenal web site, FindaSpring.com, where you can identify local springs that are close to you. There is certainly a hassle factor involved, but if you get the water from a spring, the charge is quite minimal and the only costs are your time and gas to go to and back from the spring. This is clearly the best choice if you have a local spring and the time.

Your safest and most economical choice if you don't have access to a clean spring or private well is to make sure your water is filtered when it comes out of your tap, or, alternatively, when it comes into your home. Many people will have carbon water filters on their taps even if they have a whole house filter, and this is indeed a good idea. The reason for this is because the internal house pipes could release lead even after being filtered through the whole house, so ideally, you may want to have both. Large carbon filters and a whole house water filtration system will remove dangerous levels of lead, along with the host of other contaminants, including over 500 toxic disinfectant by-products, that are often present in drinking water. In addition, if you know you have lead pipes, and especially if you haven't installed a filter, the EPA9 also recommends you:

  • 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.
  • If you use a filter, be sure you get one that is certified to remove lead by the NSF International.
[+] Sources and References