Is Your Faucet Making You Sick?
By Doug Linney
By now we’ve all heard the dangers of lead — at any level. The American Heart Association, the Centers for Disease Control, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the World Health Organization, and every other health-based organization that has reviewed the available studies have concluded that there is no safe level of lead in the human body. Human lead exposure has been associated with reduced cognitive function, aggressive behavior, increased criminal activity, digestive ailments, nervous system disorders, cardiovascular impairment, and bone marrow damage, just to name a few. Recent medical research has demonstrated that many of these ailments are caused by low levels of lead exposures — levels that were previously believed to be safe. Lead in our bloodstream robs us of our future, as it is particularly toxic to our children’s health. Furthermore, unlike other toxins that our bodies can remove, lead accumulates over time and can have adverse impacts throughout adulthood and can even shorten our lives.
But, after years of government programs to reduce lead exposure, maybe you feel safe, right? The gas you put in your car no longer contains lead. You were careful to repaint your house with lead free paints, and you avoid buying those brightly-painted imported toys that seem to be recalled with alarming frequency. And of course, last year when you remodeled your kitchen you installed a brand new faucet with packaging claiming to be “lead free” to replace that old leaky one. Surely that new faucet doesn’t contain lead.
However, the EPA still estimates that as much as “20 percent of human exposure to lead may come from lead in drinking water. How can that be? How can we still be accumulating substantial quantities of lead in our bloodstream from our drinking water?”
Federal Law Is not Entirely Protective
Under current federal law, the faucet that is labeled “lead free” can contain as much as four percent lead. In addition, federal law allows some small lead concentrations to leach out of your faucet and into the water you and your family drink. The typical household faucet manufactured over the last fifteen years can contain a quarter pound of lead! Older faucets manufactured before 1996 can contain double that amount. We know that a faucet containing so much lead is likely to leach lead into the drinking water used in our homes.
The existing laws rely on a standard that assumes a “small” amount of lead leaching from our faucets is safe. Since there are many ways that we can still be exposed to lead, we should be eliminating lead exposure wherever we can. Getting lead out of faucets is something we know can be done, and we cannot delay.
Dangerous Levels of Lead in Our Plumbing
Household plumbing continues to be an alarming source of lead exposure. EPA has a warning for consumers on its web page that brass faucets are the single greatest contributing source of lead in consumers’ drinking water. The EPA estimates that up to 20 percent of human lead exposure is the result of lead in our plumbing, including faucets. Public health departments in nearly every state across the nation and as well as the EPA all provide warnings on their web sites about the dangers from the lead that lurks in your plumbing.
They advise against using hot water directly from the tap for human consumption. This is because hot water causes more lead to leach out of plumbing. They also advise that you run the cold water tap for several minutes before drinking water from it. This is to help clear the water that has been collecting lead while it sits in the pipes.
No such warnings can be posted at the millions of drinking fountains located in schools across the country, where rampant violations of state and federal lead standards have been documented. In 1998 the California Department of Health Services estimated that 18 percent of California’s public elementary schools had lead levels in drinking water that exceeded the federal action level. Comprehensive sampling by the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2008 found that 30 percent of their schools were dispensing water with unsafe levels of lead. Widespread lead contamination has also been found in water from school drinking fountains in Seattle, Baltimore, Roanoke, and Ontario, California.
Abundant research has demonstrated time and time again that lead is particularly lethal to children. Yet, more than a decade after the problem with lead in school plumbing was widely recognized, little progress has been made to fix it, in large part because new plumbing components still contain lead!
Waking Up to the Dangers of Lead?
In September 2008 the EPA lowered the lead standard for air emissions based on their recognition of new medical studies demonstrating the dangers of exposure to lead at levels previously thought to be safe. These new medical studies make it clear that any exposure to lead, whether through air or water, is dangerous and demonstrate how important it is for our children’s future health that we get the lead entirely out of our drinking water systems.
In 2006 California started a revolution to finally make our faucets safe by adopting a law that essentially eliminates lead from drinking water plumbing. Vermont and Maryland have already followed California’s lead by passing similar laws. U.S. Representative Anna Eshoo has now introduced H.R. 5289 to get the lead out of all drinking water faucets and plumbing sold in the United States. Of course, the battle isn’t won. The plumbing industry continues to resist, seeking amendments that would allow industry to bypass federal governmental regulation and continue manufacturing and selling unsafe faucets.
Doug Linney is President of East Bay Municipal Utility District.