You’ve heard about the lead-contaminated drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the devastating effects that lead can have on children’s growing brains. But do adults – whether they live in Flint or not — have to worry about the effects of lead on their health, too? What are the chances of lead poisoning the water supply in your own home?
“We’re learning that older adults should also be concerned about lead poisoning,” says researcher Marc Edwards, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg. While it’s clear that lead can damage the brains and nervous systems of children, it may also cause high blood pressure, cataracts, decline in mental abilities, and kidney problems in adults.
Edwards led the crusade, some of it at his own expense, to get the elected officials in Michigan to take seriously the health crisis in Flint. He acted after a worried Flint mother sent him a sample of the water from her faucet that was the most lead-contaminated he had ever seen. The state’s governor has appointed Edwards to a committee to figure out a long-term solution to Flint’s water emergency.
health problems in adults
“Studies have shown that low levels of lead in the blood that we once considered safe are causing health problems in adults,” Edwards explains. “No one thinks to ever look for it in older people.”
The most common symptoms: abdominal pain, headache, fatigue, muscular weakness, and pain, numbness, or tingling in the extremities.
The evidence that lead affects the brain is troubling. In one study of nearly 600 women aged 47 to 74, those with higher levels of lead in their bodies scored worse on memory and other cognitive tests than those with lower levels. The women with higher lead levels had memory and thinking scores comparable to women who were three years older.
where does lead in water come from?
“The lead or brass service lines that connect the community water supply from streets to homes in older cities can leach lead,” says Edwards. So can the lead solder or brass and lead plumbing fixtures inside many buildings.
“Sometimes just one tap in a house might be providing water loaded with lead,” notes Edwards. “It could be because some plumber had a bad day and did some sloppy soldering 40 years ago when your house was being built.”
A case in point: The ex-mayor of a North Carolina town had suffered from chronic fatigue for years. “The kitchen tap in her apartment was perfectly clean,” Edwards reports. “It was her bathroom faucet that had just outrageously high amounts of lead.” All it took for her health problems was an occasional drink of water from the bathroom tap.
hot tap water
Another potential source: hot tap water, which can contain high levels of dissolved lead.
“We’re finding that there’s quite a heavy use of hot tap water by the elderly to make tea, coffee, soup, and other foods,” says Edwards. “And some devices that are used to heat water—like coffeemakers and those electric heating coils that are submerged directly into a cup of water—can dissolve high levels of lead into the water. It’s safer to take cold water and heat it in a teapot on the stove.”
what to do
“People shouldn’t panic, because the vast majority of taps in this country are safe,” says Edwards. “Maybe only one out of 100 faucets is dispensing hazardous levels of lead into the water.” That may not seem like many, Edwards notes, “but if that’s your family and that’s your house, it’s not good.”
For about $25 per sample, you can have your water tested for lead. But testing isn’t 100 percent reliable.
“We’re discovering that little pieces of lead particles or solder, or lead rust that has corroded, can flake off the insides of pipes,” says Edwards. “And that can deliver very, very high doses of lead” that a one-time test can miss.
The solution: a filter that removes lead at the faucet for all the water you use for cooking and drinking. “If there’s a lead problem, it’s probably coming from your plumbing, so you’ve got to treat it right at the end of the system,” says Edwards.
Source of study on women, lead, and cognition: Environ. Health Perspect. 117: 574, 2009.
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