Understanding lead: How safe is your water?

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Flint Mayor Takes Aim At Michigan Governor Amid Water Crisis

In Flint, Michigan, residents know what it's like to live in fear over water safety. In April 2014, Flint changed its water source from the treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the corrosive, chloride-polluted Flint River, and 18 months later, researchers reported that the proportion of kids with above-average lead levels in their blood had doubled.

RELATED: The crisis in Flint, Michigan

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Understanding lead: How safe is your water?
People wait in line to attend a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing with Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy about the tainted water in Flint, Michigan, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 17, 2016. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 23: A volunteer walks by cases of bottled water at the St. Mark Baptist Church in Flint, Mich., that serves as a water distribution area, February 23, 2016. The water supply was not properly treated after being switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River and now contains lead and iron. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 23: From left, Immanuel Stinson, Tirrell Mills, Walter Simmons, and Charles Reid, man a water distribution area at the St. Mark Baptist Church in Flint, Mich., February 23, 2016. The water supply was not properly treated after being switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River and now contains lead and iron. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 26: Matt Hopper holds and comforts Nyla Hopper, age 5 of Flint, after she has her blood drawn to be tested for lead on January 26, 2016 at Eisenhower Elementary School in Flint, Michigan. Free lead screenings are performed for Flint children 6-years-old and younger, one of several events sponsored by Molina Healthcare following the city's water contamination and federal state of emergency. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 03: Flint residents Gladyes Williamson (C) holds a bottle full of contaminated water, and a clump of her hair, alongside Jessica Owens (R), holding a baby bottle full of contaminated water, during a news conference after attending a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Flint, Michigan water crisis on Capitol Hill February 3, 2016 in Washington, DC. Williamson, and Owens traveled to Washington by bus with other flint familes to attend the House hearing on the crisis, and demand that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder be brought before Congress to testify under oath. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 03: Flint resident Jessica Owens holds a baby bottle full of contaminated water, during a news conference after attending a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Flint, Michigan water crisis on Capitol Hill February 3, 2016 in Washington, DC. Owens and other Flint families traveled to Washington by bus to attend a House hearing on the crisis and demand that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder be brought before Congress to testify under oath. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 03: Flint residents call for justice during a news conference, after attending a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Flint, Michigan water crisis on Capitol Hill February 3, 2016 in Washington, DC. A group of Flint families traveled to Washington by bus to attend a House hearing on the crisis and demand that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder be brought before Congress to testify under oath. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 03: Flint resident Leroy Jackson attends a news conference with Flint families after attending a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Flint, Michigan water crisis on Capitol Hill February 3, 2016 in Washington, DC. Jackson and other Flint families traveled to Washington by bus to attend a House hearing and demand that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder be brought before Congress to testify under oath. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 3: From left, Marc Edwards, Charles P. Lundsford Professor of Environmental and Water Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, looks on as LeeAnne Walters, Flint resident who helped expose the lead crisis, testifies during the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Examining Federal Administration of the Safe Drinking Water Act in Flint, Michigan on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 27: A sign at a local restaurant reassures customers that they are not on Flint water but on uncontaminated water pulled from Detroit on January 27, 2016 at Westside Diner in Flint, Michigan. Local restaurants have faced concerns following the contamination of Flint's water and subsequent federal state of emergency. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 24: Matt Krol speaks to protestors and citizens about the Flint Water Crisis on January 24, 2016 at Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan. The event was organized by Genesee County Volunteer Militia to protest corruption they see in government related to the Flint water crisis that resulted in a federal state of emergency. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 24: A shirt worn by a man during a rally displays a poisonous logo alongside the text 'City of Flint MI Water Dept.' on January 24, 2016 at Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan. The event was organized by Genesee County Volunteer Militia to protest corruption they see in government related to the Flint water crisis that resulted in a federal state of emergency. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 24: Protestors hold signs and listen as Dave McKellar speaks about the troubles facing Flint at a rally on January 24, 2016 at Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan. The event was organized by Genesee County Volunteer Militia to protest corruption they see in government related to the Flint water crisis that resulted in a federal state of emergency. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 24: Darius Simpson, an Eastern Michigan University student from Akron, Ohio, carries water he brought to donate for Flint residents during a rally on January 24, 2016 at Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan. The event was organized by Genesee County Volunteer Militia to protest corruption they see in government related to the Flint water crisis that resulted in a federal state of emergency. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 23: A water collection device is handed out to citizens of Flint for testing contaminated water on January 23, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. A federal state of emergency has been declared due to the city's water supply being contaminated. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 24: Arthur Woodson, self proclaimed 'Water Warrior' from Flint, Michigan, speaks about the Flint Water Crisis on January 24, 2016 at Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan. The event was organized by Genesee County Volunteer Militia to protest corruption they see in government related to the Flint water crisis that resulted in a federal state of emergency. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 27: Signs for a local restaurant reassure customers that they are not on Flint water but on uncontaminated water pulled from Detroit on January 27, 2016 at Westside Diner in Flint, Michigan. Local restaurants have faced concerns following the contamination of Flint's water and subsequent federal state of emergency. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 27: Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder wears pins as he speaks to the media regarding the status of the Flint water crisis on January 27, 2016 at Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan. A federal state of emergency has been declared in Flint related to the city's water becoming contaminated. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 23: National Guard members distributing water to citizens of Flint on January 23, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. Water is being handed out for free to citizens of Flint following a federal state of emergency being declared due to the city's water supply becoming contaminated. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 17: Justin Roberson (L), age 6, of Flint, Michigan and Mychal Adams, age 1, of Flint wait on a stack of bottled water at a rally where the Rev. Jesse Jackson was speaking about about the water crises at the Heavenly Host Baptist Church January 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. U.S. President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Michigan, which will free up federal aid to help the city of Flint with lead contaminated drinking water. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder requested emergency and disaster declarations after activating the National Guard to help the American Red Cross distribute water to residents. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 17: A sign on a the front of a building warns residents to filter their water January 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. U.S. President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Michigan, which will free up federal aid to help the city of Flint with lead contaminated drinking water. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder requested emergency and disaster declarations after activating the National Guard to help the American Red Cross distribute water to residents. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 17: The Flint River flows in downtown January 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. U.S. President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Michigan, which will free up federal aid to help the city of Flint with lead contaminated drinking water. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder requested emergency and disaster declarations after activating the National Guard to help the American Red Cross distribute water to residents. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 17: Soldiers from the Michigan Army National Guard Flint hand out bottled water at a fire station January 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. U.S. President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Michigan, which will free up federal aid to help the city of Flint with lead contaminated drinking water. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder requested emergency and disaster declarations after activating the National Guard to help the American Red Cross distribute water to residents. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 13: A sign points the ay for Flint residents to get bottled water, water testing kits, and water filters at a Flint Fire Station January 13, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. On Tuesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder activated the National Guard to help the American Red Cross distribute water to Flint residents to help them deal with the lead contamination that is in the City of Flint's water supply. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 13: Michigan National Guard Staff Sergeant Steve Kiger of Beaverton, Michigan, welcomes Flint, Michigan residents as they arrive at a Flint Fire Station to get bottled water January 13, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. On Tuesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder activated the National Guard to help the American Red Cross distribute water to Flint residents to help them deal with the lead contamination that is in the City of Flint's water supply. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 13: The Flint Water Plant tower is shown January 13, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. On Tuesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder activated the National Guard to help the American Red Cross distribute water to Flint residents to help them deal with the lead contamination that is in the City of Flint's water supply. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 13: Michigan National Guard Staff Sergeant William Phillips (right) of Birch Run, Michigan, helps a worker unload a pallet of bottled water at a Flint Fire Station January 13, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. On Tuesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder activated the National Guard to help the American Red Cross distribute water to Flint residents to help them deal with the lead contamination that is in the City of Flint's water supply. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
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Although the Flint crisis has drawn national attention, water crises in the U.S. aren't new. In 2004, officials in the District of Columbia notified residents that between 2001 and 2003, lead levels in the tap water of thousands of homes rose as much as 20 times the federally approved level of 15 parts per billion.

Flint, like many American cities, uses water pipes made of lead, which can prove poisonous for people who drink the water that flows through them. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that drinking water can account for 20 percent or more of a person's total exposure to lead, Peter Grevatt, the agency's director of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, said in an email to U.S. News. (Other sources include paint, gasoline, solder and consumer products like imported toys.)

Not all lead pipes leak contaminated water into people's homes, and agencies like the EPA monitor systems closely. Still, while thousands of contaminants lurk in U.S. water supplies, lead and its clear toxicity remain at the forefront of American concern. Here's why -- and what you can do to protect yourself:

SEE MORE: 10 Concerns Parents Have About Their Kids' Health

How Lead-Tainted Water Affects Your Health

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers a blood lead level to be worrisome when it's 10 micrograms or higher. However, "No amount of lead in children's blood can be considered safe," says Dr. Jennifer Lowry, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health and chief of the section of clinical toxicology at Children's Mercy Kansas City. Specific concerns for various groups include:

Pregnant women, fetuses and newborns

Research suggests developing fetuses and young children are more sensitive to lead than adults because their blood-brain barrier -- the body's way of filtering materials in the blood before they enter the brain --isn't fully developed yet. Prenatal exposure can also lead to difficulties getting pregnant -- even if it's been years since the lead exposure in the would-be mom. Lead exposure during pregnancy increases the risk for preterm birth, smaller birth weight and miscarriage, in addition to learning difficulties and slowed growth in newborns, says Rita Loch-Caruso, director of the Center of Environmental Contaminants at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Children

Researchers have long known that lead poisoning can cause brain damage in kids. Even low levels of lead put children at risk for developmental delay, ADHD​​, hearing problems and reduced growth, Lowry says. Kids can also become more irritable, suffer a lack of appetite and subsequent weight loss, become fatigued and develop gastrointestinal issues such as vomiting and constipation, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can also cause anemia, seizures and ​ damage to the nervous system, kidneys or hearing.

Adults

While adults are less susceptible to lead's harms, exposure can lead to changes in mood, behavior, personality and sleep patterns. Physical symptoms are most likely to occur with high levels​ of lead and​​ include high blood pressure, muscle pain and headaches. High blood pressure is particularly dangerous because it can lead to kidney damage.

READ MORE: 10 Things No One Tells You About Breast-Feeding

How to Make Sure Your Water Is Lead-Free

Familiarize yourself with contaminants. Every year, water companies are required to supply you with a Consumer Confidence Report -- a ​water quality report that provides details about contaminants lurking in your well or public water​, including lead. The report also provides details on these toxins' potential health risks. Your water company must provide this report to you by July 1 each year, says Jonathan Yoder​, a researcher with the CDC's Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch.

"It's important for people to be aware of where their water comes from, where it's treated and how to know if it's safe to use or drink," Yoder says, adding that concerned consumers should read the report closely. Some water companies will publish the report information through newspapers or other public forums, and all will post it online.

Take advantage of EPA resources. The EPA's website is packed with information on local drinking water quality reports; plus, the agency runs a Safe Drinking Water Hotline.​ The hotline -- 1-800-426-4791 -- also provides details about drinking water standards, public drinking water systems, source water protection and residential and commercial septic systems and wells.

Understand that well water is different from city water​. City water records are public, and your local health department will make sure it's healthy to drink. However, the only way to know your well water is safe is by testing it. The EPA recommends testing your well at least once a year for contaminants like lead. "It's estimated that 15 percent of U.S. households have water from ​an unregulated well," Yoder says. ​Contact your county health department to set up a well water test. ​The EPA also recommends the following tips for keeping private wells safe, Grevatt says:

  • Find problems early and correct them. Don't wait until a crisis.
  • Keep your well water records handy.
  • Have a local expert inspect your well construction and records.
  • Avoid storing or disposing lawn care chemicals or waste near your well.
  • Prevent water runoff by removing surfaces that don't absorb water, and replace them with drains or grates.
  • Get in the habit of checking underground storage tanks that harbor heating oil or gasoline.​

"Since you cannot see, taste ​or smell lead dissolved in water, testing is the only sure way of telling whether there are harmful quantities of lead in your drinking water," Grevatt says.​ If you want to​ test your own water, the EPA hotline can connect you with a local water testing agency. Visit the Water Quality Association's website to find your state's testing companies.

READ MORE: 7 Ways Technology Can Torpedo Your Health

Boiling water doesn't remove lead. Don't boil water if you think there's lead in it, Loch-Caruso warns. "We associate drinking water problems with a water boil advisory," she says. "That's the wrong thing to do with lead." Boiling water concentrates the lead that's remaining in the pot, she explains. What's more, using hot water from the tap for food preparation or drinking is ill-advised. "Hot water is more effective at leaching lead out of pipes and other fixtures, or the hot water tank," Loch-Caruso says. If your faucet hasn't been used in the past six hours, let the water run for one to two minutes before it runs cold for cooking or drinking, Loch-Caruso says.

Filters can help. Water filters act as a barrier by removing contaminants such as bacteria, excess nutrients and lead from household water. Make sure to follow the instructions on the water filter package ​carefully, Loch-Caruso says. She ​suggests only buying filters certified by organizations like the Water Quality Association or NSF International, nonprofits that develop public health standards and certification programs to protect water supplies. Some filters can remove up to 99 percent of the lead in water when used correctly, according to Michigan's Flint Water Response Team. If you don't change them as recommended on the instruction manual, bacteria can grow and create more health problems.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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