After Flint’s Problems, ‘Water’ You Doing?

Other at-risk towns, schools, homes may have lead, tap issues

Taylor Lockwood has only been living in Auburn, Maine, for a little more than a year, but she’s already looking forward to moving again. She and her husband, Ryan, moved there with their two boys so that her husband could begin working as a hospital administrator at Central Maine Medical Center. The area is not what they expected.

“We live in a poorer area,” Lockwood told LifeZette. “Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a third-world country — in the first-world way.”

Lockwood cites the couple’s utilities as one of the sketchier aspects of living in Auburn, where the infrastructure is in desperate need of an update. According to a neighborhood revitalization report from Auburn, almost 75 percent of the housing in certain areas was built before World War II. Many of these units have not been properly weatherized, and they contain old electrical and plumbing systems. Even more alarming, the city admits that many of these “units still have lead paint.”

This problem is not restricted to Maine. Reports from the National Center for Environmental Health state that 23.2 million homes in the United States contain prominent lead hazards, and 37.1 million homes still contain lead paint. Any home that was built before 1978 is at risk for lead exposure.

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Lead poisoning is serious. It has been linked to a myriad of problems in children, including learning disabilities, decreased IQ, hearing loss, speech development problems, and violent behavior. Those children with high levels of lead exposure can have seizures and may even die.

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But more and more children are at risk for lead poisoning. A recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that some 90,000 public schools and half a million daycare facilities are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act because they get their water from municipal utilities, which run their own tests.

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However, water that may have been safe when it entered the system may not be safe when it exits the system. Many of these schools have old plumbing, and the lead could seep into the water from the pipes, solder, or fixtures. So while the municipal water system may not register high levels of lead — a school system’s own pipes may be making the children sick. Many school facilities are empty for long periods of time, giving the water in the system plenty of time to sit and dissolve lead that enters from the piping.

Many schools that have voluntarily tested for lead have found high levels of it in their water. Problematic levels have been found throughout schools in 42 states.

The schools in Maine had some of the highest results, with 26 facilities registering dangerous levels of lead in the water. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Texas had similar test results. And poor communication and funding make it hard for some of these schools to address the problem. One small school in Lamesa, Texas, decided to replace its entire water system. The bill came to $600,000 — a sizeable chunk of cash for a small school struggling to maintain a decent library.

This problem disproportionately affects the poorer classes, according to Ruth Ann Norton, CEO of Green and Healthy Homes Initiative. “If you look at the number of children who have been poisoned in the U.S., those investigations have led us to mostly low-income communities,” Norton told LifeZette — places where people live with rundown infrastructure, she said.

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“We need to look at the water systems and make sure the water coming in is safe and water coming out is safe. We have a serious infrastructure issue that needs to be addressed in this country. We haven’t invested in infrastructure in significant ways for many decades.”

Norton says she hopes the next administration will take a serious look at infrastructure. “For every dollar invested in lead poisoning prevention, the taxpayers get back $17 to $221 dollars,” she said.

All of this makes Lockwood nervous, as she’s preparing to send her oldest son, Skylar, to public school in the fall. “I’ve been trying to teach him to drink enough water, so I don’t want to tell him that he can’t drink,” she said. “I would probably send him to school with his own water and tell him not to drink from the fountains.”

If the school systems are unaware of the problems in their pipes, there’s a high chance a large number of homes throughout the country are piping in water laced with lead. In order to make sure that the water coming out of your system is safe, the EPA recommends taking the following steps in your own home.

Regular water pitchers, such as Brita, are ineffective for lead removal.

1.) Never drink water that has been sitting in your pipes for more than six hours, such as overnight or during the workday. Allow your pipes to flush for about 15 seconds before you use the water.

2.) Never cook or consume water from the hot-water tap. Hot water dissolves lead faster than cold water and may contain higher levels of lead from the old solder on the pipes in your house.

3.) Consider installing a whole-house water filter or an under-sink water filter on your main faucet. In order to eliminate lead, you will need a carbon or reverse osmosis filter. Regular water pitchers, such as Brita, are ineffective for lead removal.

4.) Take samples of your water to a local water treatment plant for testing. Joanna Griffin, a biologist at a water treatment plant in St. George, Utah, advised asking officials to test specifically for lead. “There’s not any water panel test that I know of, like you can do for a blood panel,” she told LifeZette. “You need to know what you’re looking for.” These tests are especially important for apartment dwellers, because flushing may not be as effective for high-rise buildings with lead-soldered central piping. These tests can cost anywhere from $20 to $100.

5.) Replace any brass fixtures in your home with new fixtures. Although brass is generally only five percent lead, it can still raise the levels of lead in your water to dangerous numbers.

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