This article originally appeared in WQP April/May 2021 issue as "Time to Test"
Significant strides have been made to reduce lead in our environment since the 1970s. Exposure to lead can come from everyday sources like lead-based paint, soil, dust, food and other consumer products. Headline-grabbing water crises in Flint, Michigan, and University Park, Illinois, remind us that more progress is needed to remove lead in our environment, including lead in drinking water.
New statewide programs like LeadCare Illinois are leading the way in lead in water testing and putting the safety of children first. There is no safe level of lead exposure in children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. While lead in water can be harmful to everyone, children under the age of six, with their bodies and brains still rapidly developing, are the most at risk to the detrimental effects of lead. Even low levels of lead exposure in children have been linked to brain and nervous system damage, learning disabilities and impaired speech and hearing.
How Does Lead Get into Drinking Water?
Lead is rarely found in source water or water that leaves the treatment plant. Instead, when water passes through corroded pipes that are made of lead or internal plumbing, such as brass fixtures or fittings with leaded material, lead can leach into the water.
When present, a lead service line can be the greatest contributor to lead in drinking water. A lead service line is the water line that connects a home or facility to the water main. Although they were banned along with other leaded plumbing materials in 1986, cities across the country still have many lead services lines that supply water to homes.
How Illinois is Leading in Lead Reduction
With a growing awareness of the dangers of lead in water, some states and communities are taking action to address lead in drinking water. Illinois passed legislation (Public Act 99-0922) in 2017 that requires schools and certain childcare facilities to test their water for lead. This law is a huge step toward protecting those most vulnerable to the detrimental impacts of lead poisoning – children and infants.
Illinois is currently one of only 11 states with requirements for lead in water testing at childcare facilities. According to the legislation, facilities must test all cooking and drinking water for lead. If lead is present at or above 2.01 parts per billion, childcare facilities are required to take immediate action and develop a long-term mitigation plan to reduce the level of lead in the drinking water. Facilities must also share their test results and any mitigation actions with parents.
Free Lead in Water Testing Through LeadCare Illinois
This year, Illinois took another step forward in protecting children from the damaging effects of lead by launching a new statewide program called LeadCare Illinois. The program provides lead in water testing for free to all licensed childcare providers in the state.
LeadCare Illinois is aimed at not just providing testing but also education so that childcare providers can fully understand how to test their water and take action if lead is found. In addition to free lead in water testing, LeadCare Illinois offers educational training that covers topics such as lead testing standards, the health impact of lead, how to test water for lead and ways to mitigate lead in drinking water. To equitably reach all childcare providers, training and materials are offered in both English and Spanish.
Best Practices for Lead in Water Testing
Although Illinois is currently one of only 11 states with requirements for lead in water testing at childcare facilities, anticipated updates to the federal Lead and Copper Rule will require water utilities to conduct some level of testing at schools and childcare facilities in the future. As more states and communities move forward with lead in water testing, it is important to learn from states like Illinois with existing testing policies and programs.
A large barrier to eliminating lead in drinking water is education and understanding around the issue, including resources for testing and mitigation. When childcare facilities and schools are expected to comply with testing requirements, they may not fully understand the dangers of lead or how lead gets in their drinking water.
When developing lead testing programs, it is important to put childcare providers first. Program implementers should listen to providers to better understand what resources and guidance is needed to help providers comply with lead testing requirements and take action if lead is found.
Testing for lead at childcare facilities is only the first step in ensuring children are given access to clean and safe drinking water. Truly eliminating lead in drinking water will also require financial and technical resources to eliminate lead services lines and internal sources of lead.
How to Test Your Water for Lead
You cannot see, taste or smell lead in drinking water. The only way to confirm that water does not contain lead is to have it tested. To test your drinking water for lead, try contacting your local water utility to see if testing resources exist in your community. You can also contact a local or state lab to inquire about the cost of testing.
In addition to testing water, you can also check to see if the property is connected to a lead service line. You can conduct a visual inspection by examining the material of the service line where it enters the property. Water utilities may also have records on the material of water service lines. If a lead service line is discovered, ask your water utility about resources for replacing it or use a point-of-use filter that is NSF-53 certified to reduce lead at the drinking water source.
There are also some best practices to help reduce lead at water fixtures. Avoid using hot water directly from the tap or using hose bibs (outdoors or utility sinks) for cooking or drinking, since they tend to have higher levels of lead. Another best practice is to regularly clean faucet aerators to remove built-up sediment and debris. Soaking the aerator in vinegar can help dissolve and remove particulate lead. While these practices do not eliminate the risk of lead in water, these routine practices can help reduce lead exposure.
What Water Professionals Can Do Today
It is essential that water professionals understand the dangers of lead in water and how prevalent it still is in many cities across the country. Water professionals can also provide education to residents about the importance of testing their water for lead, the impact of lead exposure and best practices for remediating sources of lead in water.