“Water, soil and paint.” What Hillary Clinton said is true: Flint, Michigan is not the only place with a lead problem, and water is just the beginning. Here’s how to find out whether there’s lead in your neighbourhood, and what to do about it.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
How to Test for Lead in Your Water
Most tap water is safe, but in a world where Flint’s water crisis can happen, we understand if you’re not willing to automatically trust it.
A recent Australian study found lead in 58 per cent of the 212 samples of household water tested. The amount of lead in eight per cent of those exceeded the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.
Water going through lead & copper pipe must be treated with anti-corrosives to minimise the amount of lead that gets picked up as it flows through the pipes, and water utilities have to test the water. If you don’t trust the water company’s test, or if you get your water from a private well, there are independent labs that can test your water for lead.
Water filters can help, although they may not be a full solution. In Flint, lead levels are so high — 4000 ppb in some homes — that even the filtered water is still dangerous. Certified filters can remove 96 per cent of lead at levels of 150 parts per billion or less.
Public safety group NSF International has a searchable database of water filters, so you can find out which brands filter lead or any other contaminants you might be worried about. Not every filter will do the job: Brita filters do not claim to be able to filter out lead. There is a pitcher filter that does, though - it's made by ZeroWater.
Why There Might Be Lead in Your Soil, and What to Do About It
Another major source of lead exposure is the lead that used to be in petrol. Don't think that lead is gone, even though the pumps today are all dispensing unleaded. All that lead had to go somewhere, and well, any place with a lot of car or truck traffic ended up accumulating a lot of it. The soil near busy roads -- assuming those roads were also busy before 2002, the date that leaded petrol was phased out, is a good place to find it, and so are homes, yards and parks built near them. Industrial sites can also leave lead behind, even if the factory was long since torn down to make way for your house. Lead dust from paint can also make its way into soil.
How much should you worry? That's a tough question to answer. The University of Minnesota Extension reports that the greatest danger is to young kids who actually eat the dirt -- and even then, whether it's a problem depends on the kid's age, diet and overall health. In the US, states also disagree on how much lead in the soil is a problem: The EPA's standard is 300 parts per million, but Minnesota uses 100 as their cutoff, and California goes even lower, to 80. At the 300 ppm level, the extension says, a child would have to eat about three-quarters of a teaspoon of dirt each week to reach a "level of concern" in their blood. In Australia, federal guidelines state that there are health risks where lead exceeds 300 ppm.
Plants grown in lead don't tend to pick up lead from their soil. But lead-containing soil can end up on root vegetables in a garden, for example, and kids that crawl around outside might end up putting dirt or dirty things in their mouths. Their dirty shoes can also track that dirt inside.
Soil testing is a little trickier than testing for lead in water or paint. Consumer test kits aren't very good at detecting lead in soil, and expensive lab-based tests have their pitfalls too. Unless you have a specific reason to worry about your soil, it might be best to skip the testing and just do your best to make sure you -- and especially your kids -- don't eat dirt, and clean off promptly when you get dirty.
If you're worried about lead in garden veggies, try to site your garden away from old houses and busy roads, if that's possible, and consider keeping the soil alkaline and well fertilised. You can also peel off the skins of potatoes and the outer leaves of things like cabbages. Another option would be growing these veggies in a raised bed filled with soil you've purchased from elsewhere.
Even indoors, the floor can be contaminated by dirt that's been tracked in on shoes. So it's a good idea to take off your shoes indoors if you have kids that crawl on the floor and put things in their mouth. Remember that your yard isn't the only place you may encounter lead dust. Other sources might include your workplace if you work in jobs like construction or metalworking. Gun ranges also have plenty of lead dust.
What You Need to Know About Lead Paint
Before 1970, many Australian homes used paint with high levels of lead, so if you buy or live in a house built before then, it's possible you have lead paint somewhere. Recommended levels of lead were reduces from 50 per cent to one per cent in 1965, then to 0.25 per cent in 1992 and 0.1 per cent in 1997. Lead carbonate makes a great paint pigment, and keeps it thick and opaque (a job often done by titanium dioxide today). The only downside was, well, it was toxic. Hence the phase-out.
There are consumer test kits for lead paint, and we have a great guide about how to use them here. If you live in an older house, especially one with lots of original "charm", it may just be easier to assume that there's lead, and act accordingly.
If you have lead paint on your walls, you don't necessarily need to freak out. If it's not flaking off, and if nothing is disturbing it to create lead dust, one option is just to paint over it with a non-lead paint. Better yet, use an encapsulant, which is a product that's actually designed to seal in lead.
You face a bigger problem when you want to do renovations. Even something as simple as replacing a window can be a headache. Renovations can kick up dust, and that's when lead can get into the air or settle on other surfaces. By the way, if you have dust or paint chips around your house that might contain lead, vacuuming them could make the problem worse by spreading lead dust into the air. Either use a HEPA vacuum, if you have one, or just wipe up the dust with a wet paper towel.
When you want to renovate or get your home improvement on, make sure you hire someone professional who understands how to handle lead mitigation, or if you plan to DIY, use lead-safe work practices. The US Environmental Protection Agency has instructions here for do-it-yourselfers, and a listing of certified renovators.
Families With Kids and Pregnant Women Need to Pay Special Attention to Lead
Lead is hardest on children, because it affects their brains as they develop. Adults can get lead poisoning, too, but it takes a lot more lead to affect an adult, and the symptoms are more mild. Lead poisoning symptoms in adults can include fatigue and nausea, but also lead to nervous system problems like neuropathies.
If you're pregnant or have kids, though, that's when you really have to be concerned. High levels of lead can cause miscarriages or stillbirth, and can affect the brain of a developing fetus. Children under five are at the greatest risk from lead exposure because their brains do so much growing during this time.
Obstetricians and paediatricians will usually ask about your lead exposure to figure out whether it makes sense to check your lead levels. They might ask you how old your home is, for example, or where your water comes from, or if you've done any home renos lately. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends blood tests for lead only if a child is likely to have high lead levels. So if there's something about your life or home that makes you think lead is a problem, feel free to bring it up at the doctor's visit.
Your provider will discuss the results with you, but in general five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood is the current "level of concern". At that point, you'll be asked to look around your house for possible sources of lead (like water, soil and paint) and possibly get them tested. Once lead levels top 45 micrograms, your provider will probably say the problem is serious enough to warrant chelation therapy, where they try to actually remove lead from the bloodstream. I shouldn't have to say this, but chelation is a tricky process to be performed by medical professionals, and not something you can or should accomplish with supplements or undergo without evidence of metal poisoning.
Hopefully it doesn't come to that. Lead poisoning is definitely a problem, but not everywhere, and you don't need to freak out. Discuss your child's risk with their health care provider, and take steps as needed to reduce your family's risk.