Question of the day: Is lead a problem in Cleveland drinking water?

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Thu, 01/25/2007 - 15:02.

An interesting discussion on REALNEO, about bottled water, inspired this Question of the Day -  "Is lead a problem in Cleveland drinking water?" According to the Cleveland Water website FAQ, the answer is "Absolutly not". But, in looking at their water analysis data, which hasn't been updated since 2003, that claim is incorrect. They reference a Federal government acceptable lead level in drinking water of 15 µg/L (micrograms per liter, or parts per billion) and Cleveland water results averaged 6.4 µg/L, with 2 out of 72 samples exceeding the Federal standard... that equals around 3% of samples had unsafe lead levels, which equals 10,000+ Cleveland customers and probably over 50,000 regional customers who may fall into that 3%.

Of additional concern, a recent Salon.com article, titled "Lead on Tap", found that, to comply with the EPA's new "Disinfection Byproducts Rule", many water systems have switched from chlorine to chloramines, a mixture of chlorine and ammonia, as a disinfectant, and that the "switch unexpectedly and rapidly started leaching lead into the water from lead pipes, solder and brass plumbing."

The article and on-line searches don't mention Cleveland, but Salon states "When at least 10 percent of homes have elevated lead in their water, the water authority is required to inform the public about the problem. But a recent EPA survey determined that 40 percent of water utilities did not conduct the required public education activities. This means that people were not given enough information to reduce their exposure to lead from drinking water." It would seem that if Cleveland Water is exposing around 3% of customers to hazardous levels of lead, they should educate the public. Thus, their "Absolutely not" response to the question "Is lead a problem in Cleveland drinking water?" appears foolish, and suspect ino what the EPA has exposed as a problem, being water utilities do not conduct the required public education activities.

Even if Cleveland is not one of the cities that has an even more escalated lead hazard problem resulting from the use of "chloramines" - and there is no indication on their website whether they use this disinfectant or not - the level of 3% over acceptable levels is enough reason to justify public awareness efforts... an "Absolutely Yes" campaign. At 2003 reported lead levels, 10,000s of customers are harmed by lead and should be educated beyond what Cleveland Water states, being: "The water produced by the Division of Water is well within the very strict government standards for water purity and absence of lead. Any problems of lead in drinking water stem primarily from lead service lines that connect homes to water mains, and from lead pipes and solder used in home plumbing systems installed before Congress banned such use in 1986. The Division of Water routinely eliminates lead service connections during construction and maintenance programs. For additional information, contact the Customer Service Unit at (216) 664-3130."

From Salon: "Numerous studies confirm that very low levels of lead in kids' blood are linked to short attention spans and reading problems. In adults, low levels are linked to high blood pressure and an increased risk of death from heart disease and stroke." Note, in their article, regarding the lead in water crisis in Washington, D.C., "All of the agencies involved in the lead crisis -- D.C.'s water authority, the city's Health Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- had reasons to downplay the crisis. Every agency blundered by first ignoring the problem. When it got too big to hide, they tried to cover up their mistakes by blaming every case of lead poisoning on paint, a widely recognized hazard of lead exposure that predominantly affects children in poorly maintained low-income rental housing. But water as a source of lead is more insidious and pervasive. This summer, dangerous levels of lead in drinking water popped up in Maine; and Providence, R.I., and Bristol, Conn., joined the ranks of Boston, Lansing, Mich., and Portland, Ore., which have had long-standing problems with lead in tap water."

Salon then quotes: "Public health experts are trying to comfort people who are anxious without having to directly address the problem of lead in water," says pediatrician Bruce Lanphear, director of the Cincinnati Children's Environmental Health Center and one of the country's foremost researchers on the effects of lead exposure on children. "They are overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem."

At my home, we use a Brita Filter for all water we drink and cook with. Knowing the harm lead causes humans, at all stages of life, I do not consider this something to take lightly. For more insight, read "Lead on Tap" on Salon. I will investigate this issue further, regarding NEO, and will post what I determine. From some initial on-line exploration, I can say this issue is very complex. For one thing, our bodies absorb what is in the water when we bathe, so drinking and cooking are not the only issues. Further, Brita filters are of questionable value, especially as they are used over time. Also to be considered, a Washington Post article on this matter quoted 2004 acting administrator for water,  Benjamin H. Grumbles,  saying  "a provision that allows plumbing fixtures to be labeled "lead-free" even if they have up to 8 percent lead "is definitely on the table to review and look at." Research has found that those fixtures can leach measurable lead into drinking water, especially in newer homes." So, in addition to the "this old house" concerns about lead in past generation dwellings, we have a society that has allowed business to add lead hzards to new homes. What a mess. I'll post what I learn, and welcome the insight of others.

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Lead, mercury, PCBs...

  Let's face it Norm. We are fighting a losing environmental battle.  I have to think that your kids have it better than we did growing up.  Autoimmune diseases are rampant in Northeast Ohio, because of its toxicity.  So where do we go?  We are the problem.  I am not going to point fingers at any industry.  Yes, we need regulation, but we drive the production of these toxic products.  All the dialogue on this site shows an encouraging trend.  I heard David Beach on the radio yesterday talking about sustainability (while I was in my car heading to yet another unnecessary meeting), but does he still drive to work? I am not calling him out as a hypocrite.  We are all hypocrites.  We all need to slow down, use natural daylight (not mercury laden compact florescents--the new leaded gasoline), find our circadian rhythm.