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Lead-Contaminated Water

Story at-a-glance -

  • Three Michigan state and local officials are facing criminal charges over their involvement in the Flint lead water crisis. More charges may be brought as the investigation continues
  • Between 2000 and 2004, Washington DC was also plagued with lead-contaminated water. As in Flint, some of the lead levels in the water were high enough to be classified as hazardous waste
  • At least 350 schools and day care centers across the U.S. test above the EPA’s action level for lead content in water

Lead-Contaminated Water Becoming Increasingly Prevalent

May 04, 2016 | 180,586 views

By Dr. Mercola

In April 2014, the state of Michigan took over management of the city of Flint, and as a cost-saving measure decided to switch the city’s water from treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water to water from the notoriously polluted Flint River.1

What followed was a human rights travesty. People started suffering health problems, including rashes, hair loss and vision problems, yet state managers insisted the water was safe. This stance was maintained even in the face of third-party independent water testing.

In August 2015, Virginia Tech scientists led by Marc Edwards, Ph.D.2 discovered Flint’s tap water was contaminated with, in some cases, astronomically high levels of lead.  

They also found a number of other toxins, including high levels of trihalomethanes3 — carcinogenic byproducts from water treatment — and dangerous bacteria such as E.coli and Legionella, the latter of which is suspected of causing an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease. As noted by The New Yorker:4

“Incompetence, bureaucratic buck-passing, and environmental racism — Flint is majority African-American — and a catastrophic departure from democratic accountability in the one-eyed pursuit of reducing public budgets are the unsubtle culprits in this still-unfolding saga of mass poisoning.

These are all common-enough themes in an era of tottering infrastructure, vanished manufacturing, and gutted public-safety regulation.”

United States Has Long Been Lax on Lead

Lead is a well-recognized neurotoxin. Even the Romans in the second century B.C. understood its dangers. European countries began banning the use of lead in consumer goods in the early 1900s, yet the United States still to this day doesn’t take as firm a stance against it as we should.

In fact, as noted by The New Yorker, while the League of Nations banned lead-based paint in 1922, the U.S. allowed its use for decades thereafter. Lead-based paint wasn’t banned in the U.S. until 1978.

Even more egregious, the U.S. actually introduced leaded gasoline in 1923, and the ramifications of this greed-riddled move have had near-unfathomable repercussions for the global community.

The auto and chemical industries used the same techniques back then as they do now; promoting, defending, manipulating government officials, and molding public opinion in order to profit from a toxic product, all while knowing exactly the kind of harm it causes.

Non-toxic alternatives were readily available, but using lead allowed the oil industry to rake in higher profits. Human health was also traded for dollars in Flint. At most, the measure could save the city $5 million. But what was the ultimate cost to human health?

Estimates suggest anywhere from 6,000 to 12,000 children in Flint may have been poisoned by lead, and the effects may reverberate throughout the rest of their lives.

Flint Was Not the First Lead Scandal

Flint is by no means an isolated incident. As noted in the featured article,5 Edwards also blew the whistle on lead-contaminated water in Washington, D.C. back in 2003.

As in Flint, some of the lead levels in the water were high enough to be classified as hazardous waste, and as many as 42,000 children under the age of 2 may have been poisoned by lead-contaminated water in Washington DC between 2000 and 2004.

As in Flint, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was well aware of the contamination but kept it quiet. A water-quality manager who reported the problem to the agency was fired, and when Edwards began to bring the issue to the public’s attention, the EPA ended his contract with the agency.

Health Agencies Have Betrayed Public Trust

The Washington D.C. and Flint poisoning events reveal a baffling modus operandi of public health agencies. Instead of taking swift action to protect public health against the threat of lead poisoning, the problem is swept under the rug.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was also in on the charade, producing a 2004 report that concluded the water-lead levels in Washington D.C. were of no major concern. This paper was subsequently used by cities across the U.S. to cut back on costly lead-abatement programs.

According to Edwards, what these agencies did in Washington D.C. was “the most fundamental betrayal of public trust” he’d ever seen, adding that “in general, academic research and scientists in this country are no longer deserving of the public trust.”6

Michigan Officials Now Being Criminally Charged Over Flint Water Crisis

While lack of accountability has and continues to be part of the problem, Flint residents may end up getting some measure of justice as three Michigan state and local officials are now facing criminal charges.7,8

According to the state Attorney General, that’s just the beginning. More charges may be brought as the investigation continues.

On April 20, charges were brought against Michael Glasgow, a Flint employee, and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) employees Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby. Glasgow faces up to five years in prison plus $6,000 in fines for evidence tampering and willful neglect of duty.

Busch and Prysby are both charged with six counts of criminal activity, including misconduct in office, tampering with evidence, conspiracy, and violation of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act. If found guilty, they each face a prison sentence of up to 20 years, plus as much as $45,000 in fines.

For everyone who is sick and tired of government corruption and wrongdoing, this is a ray of hope for change, as the threat of personal accountability and jail time may be the only deterrent strong enough to get officials to think twice about their actions.

On the downside, the two state employees will receive state paid legal defense, which means the tax payers will be footing the bill. In related news, a judge recently also dismissed a class-action lawsuit by the residents of Flint.

Lead Contamination Is Far More Widespread Than Most Realize

Today, lead contamination may be far more widespread than previously realized, as municipalities have dragged their feet when it comes to replacing old water pipes. Many are simply unaware there’s a problem with their water.

For instance, while nearly 5 percent of children in Flint tested positive for elevated lead levels, 8.5 percent of children in Pennsylvania have elevated lead levels, as do 6.7 percent in parts of New York State, and 20 percent in Detroit.9 In the U.S. as a whole, more than half a million children between the ages of 1 and 5 suffer from lead poisoning.

Many parents have been shocked to find out their children’s school serves up lead. According to a recent investigation,10,11 at least 350 schools and day care centers across the U.S. test above the EPA’s “action level” for lead content in water. 

One Maine elementary school tested 41 times above the action level, and a bathroom sink in Caroline Elementary School had a lead level of 5,000 ppb — the cutoff level at which the EPA considers it “toxic waste.” In Baltimore, schools have relied on bottled water for years due to elevated lead levels in the tap water.

What’s worse, lead is but one environmental toxin implicated in poisoning children and adults alike. As Tracey Woodruff, Ph.D., an environmental health specialist at the University of California at San Francisco, told The New York Times, “Lead poisoning is just ‘the tip of the iceberg.’”12

Chemical runoff from agriculture, industrial discharges, firefighting foam,13 mercury discharges from dental offices, water fluoridation, fracking operations, and toxic waste from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) also contribute to the water contamination problem.

Old pipes can be replaced, thereby addressing lead contamination, but in order to address all of these other contaminants, more drastic changes are required. Preventing the chemicals from ever entering the water system is the only way to adequately address them, and that would require significant changes to entire industries.

Is Your Water Contaminated With Lead?

If there’s a silver lining to the Flint debacle, it’s that it has brought widespread attention to the issue of lead contamination across the country. Considering the faltering infrastructure, hundreds of U.S. cities with aging water lines are suspected of having an unacknowledged lead problem. John Oliver recently dedicated an entire episode14 to the lead issue in Flint and elsewhere, noting that a recent investigation found excessive lead levels in nearly 2,000 water systems across all 50 states.

Moreover there are more than 7.3 million lead service lines across the country — any of which may be leaching lead into the drinking water. In addition to that, an estimated 24 million American homes still have lead-based paint on the walls.15 The cost to remediate all these buildings is high — $16.6 billion dollars a year for 10 years. Lead abatement programs receive a mere fraction of that.

Last year, only 110 million was allocated to lead removal. However, while the expense may seem astronomical, research suggests that each dollar spent on lead paint abatement could result in anywhere from $17 to $221 in societal benefits such as lowered medical bills and reduced crime, which would make it money well spent over the long haul.

How to Avoid Lead Poisoning

The issue of lead in your home and water may be most pressing if you have young children, but adults can certainly be adversely affected as well since elevated lead is associated with neurological dysfunction. So what can you do to protect your family against lead exposure? Harvard Medical School offers the following suggestions:16

  • Was your home built before 1978? If so, get it inspected to determine whether it has any lead paint.
  • Lead paint removal should be done by a certified professional to ensure safety. The dust is highly toxic. For more information on this, see the EPA’s Lead-Based Paint Activities Professionals page.17
  • Get your water tested for lead.  
  • Be mindful of the fact that certain household objects may also contain lead. For information about lead-containing products and recalls, see the Consumer Products Safety Commission’s website.18
  • Get your child tested for lead. Ideally, all children should be tested at ages 1 and 2, and again at ages 3 and 4 if you live in an older home. It’s also recommended to test your child’s levels whenever there’s concern about exposure. A level of 5 or higher is considered dangerous.

Water Filtration Is No Longer a Luxury

Even if you don’t have a problem with lead in your water, I strongly recommend filtering your tap water since most water sources are so severely polluted. In general, most water supplies contain a number of potentially hazardous contaminants, from fluoride, to drugs and disinfection byproducts (DBPs), just to name a few.

Moreover, while there are legal limits on many of the contaminants permitted in municipal water supplies, more than half of the 300+ chemicals detected in U.S. drinking water are not regulated at all.19 Some of the legal limits may also be too lenient for safety.

If you have well water, it would be prudent to have your water tested not only for lead but also arsenic and other contaminants. If you have public water, you can get local drinking water quality reports from the EPA.20 You can also check out the Environmental Working Group’s drinking water quality database,21 which covers 48,000 communities in the U.S. 

Among the top rated water utilities are in Arlington, Texas, Providence, Rhode Island, and Forth Worth, Texas. At the bottom of the list are Pensacola, Florida, Riverside, California, and Las Vegas, Nevada.

Unless you can verify the purity of your water, I strongly recommend using a high quality water filtration system. To be certain you’re getting the purest water you can, filter the water both at the point of entry and at the point of use. This means filtering all the water that comes into the house, and then filtering again at the kitchen sink and shower.

One of the best I’ve found so far is the Pure & Clear Whole House Water Filtration System, which uses a three-stage filtration process — a micron sediment pre-filter, a KDF water filter, and a high-grade carbon water filter22 — to filter out chlorine, DBPs, and other contaminants. Here’s a picture of what the setup looks like.

Water Filter System

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