Young Children and Lead Water Contamination: The Harmful Consequences

Test your water, at least once.
Because when a child drinks water with lead, there may be no turning back.

It’s a fact that the youngest among us are most susceptible to environmental risks and health hazards.

Children are particularly vulnerable to harmful substances found in poor quality drinking water. Exposure to contaminants—particularly lead—in early life can be severely destructive, because toxins can influence childhood development processes in many negative ways.

Children’s vulnerability stems from a combination of their physiology, size, and behavior. Per unit of body weight, kids of all ages consume more water, eat more food, and breathe more air than adults, providing the opportunity for greater exposure to toxins (PRB 2002). Furthermore, longer contaminant exposures can lead to higher cumulative risk of health impacts.

With the Flint water crisis so prominently featured in recent news, we come to the inevitable question: Why is lead in drinking water so dangerous? What are the specific adverse effects it can saddle our children with?


A Brief History of Lead Regulation

The Environmental Protection Agency set guidelines for numerous drinking water contaminants in the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. They did this by establishing Maximum Contaminant Level Goals, or MCLGs. The MCLG indicates the maximum concentration level at which a contaminant (like lead) can exist in drinking water before adverse health effects on humans are likely to occur. Therein, the EPA decided that the MCLG of lead is zero.

However, it’s important to understand that even if lead levels in drinking water are found to be greater than zero, it doesn’t mean the local water authorities are mandated to treat water for lead or issue an advisory to their water customers. This is because the EPA’s “action level” guidelines are entirely separate from the MCLG, and only the action level guidelines apply to water authorities.

The EPA’s 1991 Lead and Copper Rule directly outlines the action level for both lead and copper. Water authorities are only required to take action for lead contamination if water tests reveal that more than 10% of all homes sampled feature lead readings of at least 15 parts per billion (ppb).

Despite the fact that the EPA is on record stating it’s unlikely that any level of lead in drinking water is “safe” (via the MCLG), water authorities aren't required to take action unless enough homes in your area feature lead readings equal to or greater than 15 ppb.

In short, the discrepancy between these two policies means that you and your children may be ingesting unsafe levels of lead regularly without knowing it, even if your water authority has recently tested your drinking water.


How Lead Harms Children

Lead poisoning in children can lead to the following symptoms:

  • Developmental delays
  • Kidney disease
  • Anemia
  • Fertility impairment
  • Stomach discomfort
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Appetite and weight loss
  • Hearing loss

It doesn’t take much, either. Due to the direct exposure that occurs when consuming and ingesting lead-tainted drinking water, even small quantities of lead can prove problematic for a child’s brain development. Studies have demonstrated that IQ can fall by as much as six points in relation to every ten micrograms of lead present per deciliter of blood.

Compounding the problem is the fact that detectable symptoms don’t arise quickly. Instead, lead often builds up slowly and silently over time in the body, meaning your child may never show any response or symptoms before long-term exposure has already occurred. This is why lead in drinking water is so uniquely dangerous.

For further reading on lead’s toxicity and its connection to childhood development, see this recent study on lead toxicity and school performance in Chicago public schools.


What the Government’s Doing About Lead

In December 2015, the EPA’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council advised that a specialized “household action level” be established. This household action level would finally put greater responsibility on local water authorities. If a water test showed lead levels in a home exceeding a set level, water authorities would be immediately required to alert health officials in the drinking water system area.

The National Drinking Water Advisory Council has not yet decided what the proposed household action level should be, and regardless, the EPA has not yet approved the council’s recommendation for such an action level. Proposed revisions to lead rules aren’t expected to be voted upon until 2017.


What You Can Do About Lead

Depending on where you live, lead may be a very real problem for your children as well as all your loved ones.

Fortunately, we now have Tap Score. Tap Score is the easy-to-use home water test that checks your home’s water for more than 100 contaminants using professional laboratory methods and easy to interpret Test results. The Tap Score will provide you and your family with clearly outlined and actionable lead water recommendations for safeguarding your water going forward.

Discover the benefits of the Tap Score home water test.





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