Understanding lead: How safe is your water?

Flint Mayor Takes Aim At Michigan Governor Amid Water Crisis
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.

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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.)

Water Lead Level Comparison Graphiq

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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