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Frequently asked questions about lead

Here's what the New York State Department of Health wants you to know about lead. Elevated levels of lead have been found in the water in multiple schools across Western New York following testing that began this fall:

What is lead?

Lead is a metal found naturally in the environment. It has also been widely used over the years in gasoline, house paint and plumbing fixtures. The amount of lead that is released into the environment each year has been greatly reduced by less use of leaded gas, starting in the mid-1970's. Laws forbidding the use of lead in house paint (1978) and lead in plumbing solder (1986) have helped as well. Still, lead can be a problem, especially in older homes.

Why is lead a concern?

Lead can enter people's bodies in the food they eat, the air they breathe and the water they drink. A person is exposed to a substance when it enters their body. Lead can be harmful to health and cause problems when it builds up in the body. Too much lead in the human body can cause serious damage to the brain, nervous system and red blood cells. Pregnant women and young children are at the greatest risk even when their exposure is to low levels of lead for short periods of time. Young children between the ages of six months and six years are more likely to suffer health problems from lead exposure. Too much exposure to lead can result in lead poisoning. Lead poisoning can slow a child's physical growth and mental development and can cause behavior problems, mental retardation, kidney and liver damage, blindness and even death.

What is the level of lead in public drinking water supplies?

In July of 1991, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established an action level for lead in public drinking water at 15 micrograms per liter, which is the same as 15 parts per billion (ppb). Water suppliers must routinely test household tap water to check lead levels. If lead levels in the water are above the EPA action level and can not be quickly corrected, the water supplier is required to notify homeowners and take steps to reduce lead levels in the drinking water.

Should I be concerned about lead if I use a private water source for drinking water?

Even with a private drinking water supply (e.g., well, spring, cistern), there may still be a concern about lead in your water. If you live in a structure that was built before 1986, then the plumbing may contain lead pipes, lead solder, or lead materials. The lead in these pipes can dissolve into your drinking water.

Is there lead in bottled drinking water?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has established a maximum contaminant level of five micrograms per liter for lead in bottled drinking water. Bottled water suppliers must routinely test their water supply for lead.

How does lead get into the water we drink?

Since natural levels of lead in New York State water supplies are low, lead in drinking water usually results from the use of lead pipe in water systems or leadbased solder on water pipes. Water in the plumbing system can dissolve lead from pipes and solder. This is called leaching. Soft, corrosive or acidic (low pH) water is more likely to cause leaching. Water left standing in the pipes over a long period of time also increases leaching. The longer the water stands in the pipes, the greater the possibility of lead being dissolved into the water. Stray electrical currents from improperly grounded electrical outlets or equipment also may increase the level of lead in drinking water. And pipes that carry drinking water from the source to homes can contribute lead to the drinking water, if the pipes were constructed or repaired using lead materials.

Can I lower the lead in my water?

Yes, the amount of lead can be easily lowered in most cases. To reduce the amount of lead in water:

Run the tap until water is cold to the touch before using it for drinking or cooking. This is especially important after the water has been standing in the pipes overnight or over many hours. (The flushed water can be saved for watering house plants, washing dishes or general household cleaning.)

Use only cold tap water for cooking, drinking or making a baby's formula. Hot water is more likely to leach lead from pipes and solder.

Check household plumbing for lead-based pipes or solder. A plumber can help.

Use only lead-free materials in all plumbing repairs or new faucets and pipes. The use of lead solder in plumbing was banned in New York State in 1986. Ask the plumber to show you the label from any solder packaging being used. It should state that the solder is lead-free.

How can I test water for lead?

Certified commercial laboratories can test for lead in drinking water. The cost ranges from $15 to $50 per sample. Contact your local health department or the New York State Department of Health for the names of laboratories approved to test drinking water for lead.

Consumer Beware

Unscrupulous businesses have been caught using tests or selling filtering devices that have not been found to be effective. Use only approved laboratories for testing.

What do the laboratory results mean?

If the test results of your drinking water show lead higher than 15 parts per billion, then your local health department can advise you on what to do. If the results are for what is called a "first draw" sample, these results probably represent what was sitting in the pipes overnight and the best action is probably to run the water until it is cold before using it. If you have results from a "flush" sample, they are likely to represent what you would be drinking; the proper response to an elevated level in that case would be to identify and remove the lead source or treat the water.

How do I know if someone in my family has high blood lead levels?

Lead in drinking water is only one possible source of lead in the body. Since our biggest concern is for small children, a New York State regulation calls for universal screening of all children at about age one and age two for blood lead levels. It is important to identify an elevated level of lead in a child as early as possible to reduce or remove the source of exposure, before any long-term health problems occur. Pregnant women should also discuss with their physicians the need for blood lead testing. If you have any questions about testing for lead in drinking water or if you want advice on how to lower the lead levels in your drinking water, contact the local health department for your county. The New York State Department of Health can also provide information about lead. For more information about control of lead in public water supplies, call the Bureau of Public Water Supply Protection, 518-402-7650. For questions about lead poisoning prevention and education, call 518-402-7600.

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