Getting The Lead Out

In the News

One of the more recent environmental emergencies in the United States as of 2019 was the Flint water crisis. During the preparation of a new water pipeline, the city of Flint, Michigan authorized a temporary water-supply switch from Lake Huron to the Flint River in 2014. Foreshadowed by reports of fecal coliform bacteria and brown, strange-smelling water a few months after the switch, it was discovered that lead had been leaching into the water and exposing the residents to elevated levels.

On May 21, 2019, HUD Secretary, Ben Carson, provided an update on the state of public housing in the U.S. He voiced his concern with lead in public housing, and the acute and chronic health effects on the residents, particularly children.

 

What is Lead?

Lead (Pb) is a soft, malleable, corrosion-resistant heavy metal that has been used for thousands of years in everything from currency and ornamentation to construction and plumbing. In fact, the word “plumbing” is derived from plumbum, the Latin word for lead, referencing the metal’s use by the Roman Empire in constructing a system of pipes to transport water. It is typically found in the form of galena (PbS), and was recovered in the past as a by-product of silver smelting.

Lead Poisoning

Despite its versatility, lead is a highly toxic and poisonous metal. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 4 million households in the country are exposed to high levels of lead, and approximately 500,000 children with blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), the level for concern (1). Lead poisoning may cause cardiovascular defects, nerve disorders, decreased kidney function, and fertility problems in adults. At higher levels, it can result in seizures, unconsciousness, and even death.

Children absorb lead more readily and because their bodies and brains are still developing, they are the most at-risk. The National Institute of Environmental Sciences (NIEHS) states that lead poisoning in children is associated with damage to the central nervous system, low cognitive performance, delayed puberty and growth, decreases in height, impaired hearing, and even ADHD in blood lead levels less than 10 µg/dL (2).

Causes

Lead poisoning is primarily caused by lead-based paints, lead contaminated dust, drinking water, and batteries. However, poisoning may also come from imported toys, bullets, fish-sinkers, art supplies, jewelry, cosmetics, and even tamarind candy from Mexico.

Although the US government banned lead-based paint in 1978, it remains on the walls and woodwork of more than 24 million housing units (3). Paint deterioration from the interior and exterior of homes results in paint chips and paint dust that are often ingested by small children. Dust may also be found on window sills, door frames and stairways. Lead contaminated dust not only comes from deteriorating lead-based paint, but may also be tracked in from the contaminated soils associated with past leaded gasoline use or industrial pollution.

The corrosion of lead-containing plumbing materials such as pipelines, fixtures, and faucets are another source of lead poisoning. While the EPA adjusted the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2014 to only allow .25% of lead in these materials, plumbing in homes built before 1986 is likely to contain higher concentrations (4).

Perhaps most unsettling of all is that unsafe lead levels in drinking water may be found in our schools. Texas was among 22 states to receive an F rating by the Texas Public Interest Research Group and Environment Texas Research and Policy Center for failing to lower their lead levels in schools. According to the EPA, the maximum allowable concentration of lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion (ppb). However, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a 1 ppb standard. Not only did 71% of Texas schools test higher than 1 ppb, 2 of the highest levels were found in two Houston schools at around 96 and 466 ppb (5).

 

Regulations

Regulations for lead have been established over the past 50 years through a number of congressional acts and amendments, including: The Lead-based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act, the Residential Lead-based Paint Hazard Reduction Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Regulations have generally become more stringent over time, as continuing research has demonstrated that harmful effects may occur at levels previously considered safe.

The various acts are implemented and enforced by federal agencies, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates exposure and protection levels for industry, while many states have additional rules surrounding lead and lead hazards.

 

How do we deal with lead?

If you suspect that lead may be present in your immediate environment, you will want to  establish the levels of lead through testing first. Next, risk assess the situation based on the lead levels, and other conditions which may increase exposure to lead (e.g., deteriorating water piping and fixtures, or painted surfaces that are pealing or chalking). Lastly, establish a plan of action to either control the hazard, or eliminate (abate) the hazard all together.

Our staff are certified by the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS) to perform Lead Inspections and Lead Risk Assessments. We are also certified to perform lead sampling in water, and X-ray analysis to determine lead concentrations in paint and soils.

Check out our site lead page to find out more!

 Sources:

(1)    https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/

(2)    https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/materials/lead_and_your_health_508.pdf

(3)    https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/tips.htm

(4)    https://www.epa.gov/lead/protect-your-family-exposures-lead#water

(5) https://www.tpr.org/post/report-texas-fails-get-lead-out-drinking-water-schools

David Lewis