Lead levels in metro-east water are well below the “action level” set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but the level may not necessarily be a good standard of safety, some health advocates say.
The EPA requires water systems to take broad action when more than 10 percent of the samples submitted by a town in a testing period, which is at least every three years, contain more than 15 parts per billion of lead.
Since January 2010, metro-east residents have had their water tested for lead 3,385 times, and 45 samples, or 1.3 percent, tested above 15 ppb, according to data from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
The results above 15 ppb were not located in one bad patch but were spread out across the region during the five-year period. Two water suppliers reached the action level, including Evansville, in 2010; and the Mound City Public Water District, in 2011. After those suppliers took steps to improve their water, tests the following year showed the lead amounts dropped below the action level.
Although only two towns reached the action level, some people believe the best measure of safety is 0 ppb.
“There is no safe level of lead in drinking water,” said Anurag Mantha, a PhD student working with the Flint Water Study, a Virginia Tech research team studying the water in the embattled Michigan city.
The metro-east does not compare to the crisis in Flint. In August, 19 percent of 269 water samples there were above the action level, and 90 percent had at least some measure of lead. Lead problems occur most frequently at the home, where there are lead pipes, service lines and solder; Flint's water was corrosive and encouraged these issues.
In the metro-east — Bond, Clinton, Madison, Monroe, Randolph and St. Clair counties — 901 tests, or 26.6 percent, returned some amount of lead over the past five years, while 2,484 of the samples, or 73.4 percent, contained no lead. If a town has no water samples with lead, however, it does not mean that all homes there are lead-free, and they still must be periodically tested.
Some towns submitted many more water samples with lead than others. In 2015, all of Glen Carbon’s 20 tests contained lead, up from 5 in 2012. In 2011, lead showed up in 29 of 30 samples from Bethalto; three years later, lead showed up in 17. And in 2014, 21 of Edwardsville’s 30 tests had at least some level of lead, up from 11 in 2011.
One guideline from the Flint Water Study suggests that if a sample taken from a first draw of water in the morning is between 5 and 30 ppb, then there is a “significant contamination problem.”
In the metro-east, 225 samples were at least 5 ppb, which accounted for 6.6 percent of all tests.
Reactions to the tests
When Kathryn Campbell’s water in Columbia tested at 18.9 ppb in July 2014, she wasn’t really concerned.
Campbell’s water had also been tested in 2012, and it was fine then, she said. She thought the most recent test could have been a fluke, and she’s going to have it tested again, maybe this year.
“Honestly, I’m not gonna freak out about this,” she said.
An office building at McKendree University in Lebanon turned up a sample of 17 ppb. Staff members were informed of the test, and they drink bottled water that a faculty member brings in, wrote Lisa Brandon, a spokeswoman for the college, in an email.
The highest concentration of water lead levels in the metro-east came from one sample in Alton that reached 463 ppb — more than 30 times the action level.
Karen Cotton, a spokeswoman for the utility company Illinois American Water, recalled that test; it was a false alarm.
There is no safe level of lead in drinking water.
Anurag Mantha, researcher on the Flint Water Study
“This particular sample was from a brass faucet that was said by the customer to be rarely used,” she wrote in an email, meaning that water had collected more lead by sitting in the pipe for a long time. “Our team tested water from other sites in the home and those tests came back well below 15 ppb.”
Isaac Gustafson, of New Baden, was more concerned about his results. He has submitted two tests since his family moved to their current home in 2011, and both were above the action level — 19.4 ppb in 2012 and 15.7 ppb last year.
Gustafson said his family received a letter with their result that explained what to do to mitigate the effects of possible lead exposure in their drinking water. Recommendations included flushing the home’s water lines with cold water for two minutes in the morning to expel the highest concentrations of lead.
After moving in, the Gustafsons installed a reverse osmosis and deionization water filter for their fish aquarium. The brand, Kent Marine, states on its website that it can filter 95 percent of lead.
Gustafson doesn’t know what lead levels are like throughout the day, as the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t require samples to be taken after the first draw, but when the second lead test — all tests must come straight from the tap — came back above 15 ppb, he said his family started drinking water from the filter exclusively.
Gustafson said he sometimes forgets to drink water from the filter, but the rest of his family does, and he believes they are safe. They haven’t been to the doctor to check whether their blood has elevated levels of lead, and he isn’t worried about the long-term effects, but, he said, “it’s something we think of.”
Joan Scharf, on the other hand, thinks about lead all the time.
Scharf, who works with the St. Clair County Lead Hazard Control Program, said she doesn’t think people take lead as seriously as they should because people can’t see or taste it, and it doesn’t cause immediate harm or physical deformities.
Still, Scharf’s house calls have shown the irreversible damages of lead poisoning. On one visit to investigate the source that sickened a child, she found no lead in the house itself. The grandmother’s house was lead-free, too, as was a suspicious lot down the street where a different old house had been. Then, at the child’s home, Scharf’s eyes settled on the china cabinet.
She asked the mother whether they had used the good dishes recently. She said yes, on Thanksgiving.
Scharf turned over one of the pieces. “Lead” was written on the bottom in capital letters. It was in the glaze and in the decorative flowers cast on the edges. The hot meal had leeched lead into the food.
Scharf recounted a handy way to picture how easy lead poisoning is to contract: Imagine filling a single sugar packet with lead dust and then spreading it across a football field. That level of concentration is enough, she said.
She recommends that everyone have their children’s blood tested.
Water only part of the problem
Tom Bigley, the Director of Plumbing at United Association, a Maryland-based union with a branch in Belleville, remembers lead solder well. One popular type that contained 50 percent lead and 50 percent tin didn’t require much heat to turn it into a liquid bead that effortlessly wrapped around a connecting seam.
Lead pipes held a similar adoration from plumbers and pipefitters. Malleable enough that they could adjust when the ground settled, the pipes wouldn’t break like the old-time galvanized steel did.
The Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments in 1986 all but banned lead solder and pipes for drinking-water use. Among other things, the act defined that “lead-free” solder contained less than 0.2 percent of lead and that lead pipes contained less than 8 percent lead.
Today, old lead pipes and solder are still present in many water systems, but only about 20 percent of lead exposure comes from water, according to the U.S. EPA. The agency says that it could also be present in consumer products, soil, playgrounds, and “folk remedies.”
But the biggest problem contributing to lead poisoning is old paint.
According to the 2014 Illinois Lead Program Annual Lead Surveillance Report from the Illinois Department of Public Health, “Deteriorating lead-based paint is a primary source of lead poisoning in houses built prior to the residential lead paint ban of 1978.”
Further, the department stated that “2 million of the 5.2 million housing units in Illinois have a prevalence of lead-based paint.”
Because most lead-based paint — the metal was added to make it more durable — has been covered up with safer types of paint over the years, it doesn’t pose much risk, though paint around old windows can easily loosen, chip and turn into dust from repeatedly opening and closing them. It can blow inside when the windows are open, and kids often breathe or ingest it.
To get an idea of how many children are affected by lead, the Illinois Department of Public Health collects yearly information about blood lead levels in children aged 6 and under. In 2014, almost a quarter of children in the state were tested.
Lead is a potent neurotoxin, and childhood lead poisoning has an impact on many developmental and biological processes, most notably intelligence, behavior, and overall life achievement.
American Journal of Public Health
The recommended federal guideline for public health intervention is a venous blood test of 5 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dl) — 30 times less concentrated than the lead measurement in water. In 2014, 6.8 percent of children in Illinois were above 5 mcg/dl, according to the 2014 Surveillance Report. About two-thirds of tests were confirmed venous tests; the others were finger pricks.
In the metro-east, the highest rate above the intervention level, at 7.5 percent of tests, came from the East Side Health District, which includes the townships of Canteen, Centreville, Stites and East St. Louis. That was primarily due to heavy industry and the use of residential lead paint before 1978, Elizabeth Patton-Whiteside, the health group’s Public Health Administrator, or CEO, wrote in an email.
Children are especially susceptible to lead poisoning.
“Lead is a potent neurotoxin, and childhood lead poisoning has an impact on many developmental and biological processes, most notably intelligence, behavior, and overall life achievement,” researchers wrote in a peer-reviewed article published in the February edition of the American Journal of Public Health.
“There is no safe level of lead in the body,” echoes the 2014 Surveillance Report. However, the document does not say how many children tested at 0 because the most labs can’t detect that level, wrote Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health, in an email.
According to the state public health agency, the most at-risk populations for lead exposure in the home include the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, recent immigrants, people who live in older and “poorly maintained” rental properties, and kids whose parents come into contact with lead at work.
However, the 2014 Surveillance Report does not keep good track of that information. Just 41,000 of the 270,000 children tested statewide were recorded as black, white, Latino or “other,” a category that included mixed-race children. Of those, 4.9 percent of black children were tested based on their estimated population; 2 percent of white children; and 4.2 percent of Latino children. Those numbers came from the National Center for Health Statistics, Arnold wrote.
To help deal with the problem of lead in the home, the St. Clair County Health Department recommends washing children’s toys, floors and counter tops, and “most importantly, having children assessed for lead poisoning each year.”
The county also offers grants for home renovation through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Applicants should call Joan Scharf at 618-825-3211 for program eligibility.
Where to test children for lead
To test your children’s blood lead levels, contact a doctor, or call local health clinics for service eligibility, including the St. Clair County Health Department (618-233-7703), the Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation (618.332.0694), or the East Side Health Department (618-271-8722).
Want to test your water?
For a list of accredited laboratories, visit the Illinois Environmental Protection agency at epa.illinois.gov/
Dealing with lead
- Run the faucet for 30 seconds to 2 minutes if you haven’t run the water in a few hours.
- Lead dissolves more easily in warm water, so run cold water and then heat it up.
- Consider buying a filter, but check their ratings first.
Source: U.S. EPA