News reports from around the United States have highlighted reports of water contaminated by lead. Although Flint, Mich. is one of the worst examples of water contamination, other places suffer from lead and heavy metals in drinking water. Lack of transparency about results of water testing, little concern about blood lead screening of children and lack of ongoing monitoring of lead contamination have eroded public trust in many locations.
What is happening here? Idaho has continuing lead contamination problems from several sources. First, there are the Superfund sites that have polluted rivers, streams and lakes, primarily in North Idaho, but in other areas of the state as well. Drinking and bathing water is drawn from some of these sources, which are contaminated with mine wastes and lead.
Second, lead levels in drinking water carried in old pipes are rarely tested, or it’s left to individuals to test their own water. Drinking water should have less than 15 parts per billion particles of lead. If it’s elevated, then find out what you can do to reduce the lead level.
Third, deteriorating lead-based paint, used in homes and buildings built before 1978, is a source of household contamination. Another source of lead exposure comes from hobbies that entail handling objects with lead, such as reloading lead bullets, ceramics and jewelry. Hunting and fishing with lead shot can contaminate game and bird meat.
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There are excellent sources of information about reducing lead exposure and risk as well as statewide reports of lead levels from the Center for Disease Control (CDC (cdc.org). Idaho is not included in the reports because we don’t have a statewide reporting system.
Get the lead out is a call to action for better health for children and adults. Lead is a poison that affects many body systems, including the heart, brain, kidneys and muscles. Children younger than 6 and pregnant and nursing women are most vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead. But adults as well as children are affected, and there is no safe level of lead in the body. Even with efforts to get the lead out, the public needs access to current information and accurate test results of water and soil, and blood lead screening results of children.
Blood lead screening results highlight that exposure has occurred, but not sources of lead and what needs to be corrected. That is where public action is required to fund infrastructure repairs to water pipes, restoring health to rivers, lakes and water sources, and supporting healthy homes and schools. Getting the lead out takes efforts as well as reporting results so we know what is happening with sources of lead exposure. A statewide plan to monitor, report and reduce lead contamination is needed. The public needs to have confidence that necessary steps are taken to reduce lead contamination and that risks are communicated clearly.
Ingrid Brudenell, Ph.D., R.N., emeritus professor, Boise State University, is a member of the Medicaid Blood Lead Screening Advisory Committee and lives in Boise.