RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – President Barack Obama looked to bring some relief to the people of Flint, Michigan with a symbolic sip of water after they spent months in a state of emergency after finding out their drinking water was flowing with dangerous levels of lead.
“This was a man-made disaster. This was avoidable,” the Obama said.
But unfortunately lead is not just a Flint problem.
There are cases of elevated levels of lead in water systems all over the state of North Carolina.
Dangers of lead
CBS North Carolina Investigates spoke to Dr. Jonathan Fischer from Duke Hospital about why it matters.
“Certainly when you talk about lead exposure there should be a concern or at least an awareness,” Fischer said.
Lead is a neurotoxin that can carry serious symptoms.
“Things like high blood pressure, to headaches, to seizures, ultimately to kidney damage and even death at the highest rates,” Fischer explained. “Being exposed to that toxin can have more devastating effects on children than adults,” he added.
Fischer said blood tests for lead are a common part of a child’s regular check-up, but anyone can request to have a blood test done.
The EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood.
The EPA estimates drinking water can make up 20 percent or more of a person’s total exposure to lead. Infants who consume mostly mixed formula can receive 40 to 60 percent of their exposure to lead from drinking water.
The bottom line – you don’t want it in your water.
Hidden in Pipes
Most lead contamination comes from inside old pipes.
Homes built before 1986 have better chance of having lead pipes or fixtures.
CBS North Carolina Investigates talked to Kenny Keel, Utilities director and engineer for the Town of Hillsborough.
“If it’s an older house, and of course we have a lot of older houses, this is historic Hillsborough, there may be in old plumbing some lead lines or the lead solder that was used,” Keel explained.
Lead solder was used to join pipes together but was virtually banned by North Carolina in 1985 and by the EPA in 1986.
Hillsborough is one example of a town that’s replaced all of the old pipes in its water system, but some homeowners haven’t changed what’s under their homes.
“If you have corrosive water, it can strip lead out of those places and get into the water,” Keel said.
Most cities treat their water to prevent corrosion, but it’s why the EPA requires testing.
The federal government set limits for the amount of lead allowed in drinking water through the EPA’s lead and copper rule.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality follows that rule for water systems in our state.
“The main objective of the lead and copper rule is to protect the public from contaminants resulting from corrosion in the piping system,” explained DEQ spokeswoman Sarah Young.
The rule sets an “action level” or allowable limit for lead in water systems at .015 mg/L.
Water systems are required to test water themselves from taps inside homes.
The EPA requires all community water systems to prepare and deliver an annual water quality report called a Consumer Confidence Report for their customers by July 1 of each year.
But lead testing can very.
Where and how often they are required to test for lead depends on population and the type of water system you’re connected to.
Sometimes, the company can go three years between testing.
If they have consistently positive test results, they are required to test fewer homes, less often.
A state-wide Issue, including schools/day cares
CBS North Carolina Investigates wanted to know just how many homes had elevated levels of lead in our state.
Investigates filed a public records request with the EPA, who then sent us to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
DHHS sent CBS North Carolina Investigates to DEQ, who finally provided the records.
It turns out there have been more than 6,000 individual exceedances of lead and copper limits since 2005, and those are just the ones that the state knows about.
Some of those exceedances include schools and day cares where children could be exposed.
The worst individual case had lead at levels 500 percent higher than the limit.
Click here to view the state report of known exceedances of lead and copper.
DEQ has taken steps to notify customers faster of any lead exceedances.
“We mandate that systems notify customers that had action level exceedances for lead within 48 hours whereas the federal requirement is 30 days,” said Young.
The state has also recently petitioned the federal government to change the law to follow North Carolina’s stricter rule. Read more here.
The water that is pumped into your home is carefully monitored. But once it hits your pipes? It’s your responsibility.
Since lead cannot be seen, tasted or smelled in water, testing is the only sure way of telling whether there are harmful quantities of lead in drinking water.
Testing costs between $20 and $100. An at-home test kit can be purchased at a local hardware store, or check with your city to see if they offer free testing.
Other tips from the EPA
If you suspect you may have lead in your water here are some tips from the EPA:
Flush your pipes before drinking:
- The more time water has been sitting in your home’s pipes, the more lead it may contain. Anytime the water in a particular faucet has not been used for six hours or longer, “flush” your cold-water pipes by running the water until it becomes as cold as it will get. This could take as little as five to thirty seconds if there has been recent heavy water use such as showering or toilet flushing. Otherwise, it could take two minutes or longer.
Only use cold water for eating and drinking:
- Use only water from the cold-water tap for drinking, cooking, and especially for making baby formula. Hot water is likely to contain higher levels of lead. Run cold water until it becomes as cold as it can get.
- Note that boiling water will NOT get rid of lead contamination.
- Use water filters or treatment devices:
- Many water filters and water treatment devices are certified by independent organizations for effective lead reduction. Devices that are not designed to remove lead will not work.