Lead Poisoning in US Water

By Ian Teñido

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Lead poisoning has hit the news circles in the recent past with Flint being the latest victim where more than 8000 children from the area were diagnosed with severe lead poisoning. Lead is one of the many heavy metals and its use in the infrastructural developments during the industrial revolution coming all the way to as late as 1980s was at the core of civility. The lead materials were extensively used in the plumbing activities and especially in piping water to homes, businesses and institutions. However, there was limited knowledge on the impact of lead when it leaches and becomes part of water to be consumed for domestic purposes. After lead related cases among children in the 1980s and 1990s had escalated to national emergency, the use of lead in new infrastructure developments was halted. This essay investigates the status of lead poisoning across the US, delves into the issues surrounding it, assesses the case of Flint water crisis and finally offers recommendations as a solution to prevent any future lead poisoning.

Background to Lead Poisoning

Lead is an anciently known metal; it is mostly found freely existing in nature but for its extraction, it is obtained from the ores of cerussite, minum, anglesite and galena. It is a soft, corrosion resistant and malleable material that was used by Romans to build water pipes; these water pipes are widely still in use today.  The wide use of lead is owed to its easily mined nature as well as refining.

Lead is equally used to line the tanks that store corrosive chemicals such as acids; its density further makes it useful in shielding against the X-rays and Gamma rays. Several alloys of lead are in use in industries with a common example being the solder. However, much of the impact from lead has been leaching through water service pipes; the same water is channeled in homes or other installations resulting to lead poisoning.

Lead enters the drinking water when the service pipes contain lead corrode. The leach is exacerbated when the water has high levels of acidity or when there is very low mineral content. High acidity corrodes the fixtures and the pipes. Studies have shown that the common problem of lead entering drinking water is at the point when chrome-plated brass or brass faucets with solder release significant amounts of lead into the water.  In the US, homes that were built before 1986 are designated as highly likely having lead pipes, solder and fixtures. The Safe Drinking Water Act reduced the maximum allowable content of lead in water to a weighted average of 0.25% when calculated across the pipe surfaces, fittings, plumbing fittings as well as fixtures. Only 0.2% is allowed for solder and flux (President‘s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children, 2000).

There are a number of factors that make it easy for corrosion to take place in the water pipes. Firstly, the chemistry of water plays a bigger role, if the acidity of water is high, corrosion takes place and the types of mineral contents accelerate the corrosion process. The second factor is the amount of lead that water sweeps through; if the amount is high, there are higher chances of corrosion. The temperature of water equally determines the level of corrosion; with high temperatures corrosion is enhanced. The age of the pipes also matters a lot because the older the pipes, the more the wear in the pipes and thus, the higher the corrosion. Lastly, the presence of the coatings in the pipes also serves to prevent corrosion and thus their absence or if they are completely eroded, then a definite corrosion of lead will take place.

In order to control corrosion in lead pipes, EPA under the authority of SDWA issued the Lead & Copper Rule (LCR). One of the primary requirements of this rule is corrosion control treatment; this means that utilities must endeavor to make drinking water less corrosive by ensuring that requisite chemicals that reduce corrosion to the materials it comes into contact with are applied all the time.

Effects of Lead

The reason why lead in drinking water is feared is because of its negative health impacts to children, adults and pregnant women. SDWA requires EPA to set standard levels of contaminants in drinking water, including that of lead, at which adverse health effects cannot be experienced.  For lead, the maximum contaminant level is set at zero because up to date there is no known level of lead in drinking water that is perceived to be safe for human intake.  In addition, lead is a toxic metal which harm to human health has been proven even at very low exposure levels.  To make the matter worse, lead is a persistent metal and can bio-accumulate in the body over time.

Infants, fetuses and the young children are particularly at a greater risk to lead poisoning because of their behavioral and physical attributes; making lead dangerous in children even at low exposure levels. It should be noted that a dose of lead that might have insignificant effects on an adult might have severe effects to a child. Lead poisoning, in fact, has been widely studied among children due to high cases of child lead poisoning that are reported compared to the adult poisoning.

In children, lead results to peripheral and central nervous system damages, affects learning abilities, leads to impaired hearing as well as impaired formation and function of cells in the blood and lastly, a possibility of a shorter stature is very true. Recently, the CDC recommended that whenever the level of lead in a child hits 5ug/dL or more, a public health action must be initiated.  Drinking water is only one of the ways through which children are exposed to lead; otherwise, they can be exposed through air, soil, paint, dust, and food.

Pregnant women are also second in the danger scale of lead poisoning. Due to the bioaccumulation nature of lead in human bodies, it can be stored in the bones along with calcium and during pregnancy, it is intermittently released as maternal calcium. This results to serious effects to the fetus and can lead to premature birth and/or reduced growth of the fetus. The lead effects in adults, especially when they drink lead-rich water, include: fertility impairment both in men and women, kidney problems and increased heart diseases.

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The Flint Water Crisis Case

A nationwide look by EPA confirms that approximately 2000 water systems were found to have elevated levels of lead in tap water samples as well as in bottled water samples since 2012. Flint is the latest causality of lead poisoning that has seen more than 8000 children diagnosed with high levels of lead in their blood.  The Flint water crisis began in April 2014 when it was experiencing financial difficulties. Between 2011 and 2015, Flint was under receivership and the city’s finances were entirely controlled by just a few emergency managers that were appointed by Governor Snyder.

A background check revealed that the water service pipe line were installed over a century ago just like it is the case with many other municipalities which, by that time, had lead-constructed pipes leading water to homes. Lead was inexpensive and was easy to work with. After the 1980s renouncements on the use of lead in paints and plumbing materials, lead exposure fell dramatically including in Flint.

From 2011, Genesee County began a development project (Karegnondi Water Authority) in order to supply water to Flint and other counties. In 2013, a vote of seven against one was passed by Flint City Council to purchase 16 million gallons of water from the KWA per day. This was a decision against using Flint River as the permanent supply. When the emergency management approved the action, the state treasurer equally approved. However, later on in April 2013, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) sought to block the action of Flint, nevertheless the action was approved. For this to happen, however, there was a temporal switch to Flint River as a supplier of the city’s water. Shortly after, the residents began complaining about the odor, color and the taste of water (Christensen, J. et al., 2016). The Boil-water advisories were issued due to coliform detection.

The first indication of any corrosion was at the General Motors plant in Flint. The management complained and abandoned the use of water because it was corroding the car parts. Later on, the tests showed that water tested high for THMs (a chlorine by-product). With increased cases of lead poisoning reported from health centers, the city council began initiating a process of going back to Detroit Water.  Any efforts, since then, to return to Huron water has been blocked by the state of Michigan fearing the previous predicament. This issue was elevated to state and finally to federal emergency level, calling for both state and federal intervention. Flint is just part of the bigger circle of lead-poisoned water because such cases have been reported in Durham, Sebring and Greenville.

Recommendations in Preventing and/or Dealing with Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning and its exposure occur over a fairly long period of time. Its harm is devastating to children under the age of six but more severe in children under the age of three. If lead is suspected to be in the environment where people live including in drinking water, the following precautions can help reduce exposure: (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2014)

  • Contact trained lead contractors to remove the lead/ test its presence
  • Ensure that water from all faucets are tested for lead traces
  • Cold water should be used for drinking or cooking
  • Clean the floors and windowsills with detergents that reduce exposure such as lead-specific cleaning products
  • Toys should be rinsed with warm soapy water
  • Children should be taught not to eat dirt, sand or paint chips
  • Children and pregnant women should be kept away while renovating a house
  • A balanced diet including calcium, phosphorous, iron, zinc and vitamin C.


From the above discourse, it is crystal clear that lead is present naturally but also in man-made fixtures and fittings. The fixtures and fittings that were done before 1980s possibly contain lead traces and thus a precaution should be taken while touching or using such faucets. It is however very important for children to be protected from any exposure because the impact is highest amongst them. A raft of measures such as keeping children and pregnant women away during renovation as well use of non-lead pipes in water faucets are some of the ways exposure to lead can be reduced dramatically.



Christensen, J., Sidner, S., & Simon, M. (March, 2016). Flint lead poisoning: Living with uncertainty long-term. Retrieved, from http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/04/health/flint-lead-exposure-long-term-pain/index.html on April 19, 2016.

Grossman Law Firm (2015). Lead-Poisoning [Image]. Retrieved from http://www.grossmanjustice.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Lead-Poisoning.jpg on April 19, 2016.

KKTV News (2016). Flint Water Crisis [Image]. Retrieved from http://media.graytvinc.com/images/Water+crisis+in+Flint.jpg on April 19, 2016.

Mayo Clinic Staff (2014). Lead Poisoning: Prevention. Diseases and Conditions. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lead-poisoning/basics/prevention/con-20035487 on April 19, 2016.

President‘s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children (February, 2000). Eliminating Childhood Lead Poisoning: A Federal Strategy Targeting Lead Paint Hazards. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/about/fedstrategy2000.pdf.

Steuben County, New York (n.d.). Get the Lead Out [Image]. Retrieved from  http://www.steubencony.org/Files/images/gettheleadout21.jpg on April 19, 2016.

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