By Daisy Luther
If nothing else, the water disaster in Flint, Michigan proved that we can’t just accept it when officials claim that a water source is safe for drinking and cooking. This terrible lesson has been repeated in many municipalities across the country, and the takeaway is undeniable. If you want to be sure that your tap water is free of lead, you must take responsibility into your own hands and test to see if there is lead in your water.
The problem didn’t end in poverty-stricken Flint, though. In January, lead was discovered in the water of 21 different New Jersey school districts.
Just last week, lead was discovered in the tap water of a San Diego, California school when a service dog refused to drink it. That’s right. A dog wouldn’t drink the water that kids were expected to drink. I know that my dogs will drink just about any water, including the stuff from the basin that the chickens pooped in and random mudholes. So, yeah, that’s pretty awful.
These are just a few examples. Unsafe levels of lead have been discovered in water supplies in Ohio, Washington DC, North Carolina, and Mississippi. More than 5300 water districts have been found to be in violation of lead rules.
This isn’t just a localized issue. It’s everywhere, and as I wrote in my book, The Prepper’s Water Survival Guide, the onus is always on us to be certain that our families are drinking safe water. It’s clear by now that “officials” can’t always be trusted to a) test often enough and b) warn people instead of covering their own butts.
How does lead get into the drinking water?
The most common cause of lead in your water is old plumbing. If your home was built before 1986, it’s entirely possible you have lead plumbing. It’s also possible that the lead isn’t in your home’s plumbing but in the city’s water pipes.
But just the presence of lead, although unwelcome, isn’t enough to make it leach into the water. Generally, the leaching occurs when a) the pipe begins to break down due to age and wear or b) when there is something in the water that causes the lead to leach into the water. (This was the case in Flint. Due to budget cuts, they began processing water from the highly polluted Flint River.)
If stuff like this tickles your fancy, I wrote about municipal contamination at great length in my book, The Prepper’s Water Survival Guide.
What are the effects of drinking water that is tainted with lead?
If you have lead in your water, the most serious effects are to children under 5. The National Institute of Health reports:
Exposure to lead can have a wide range of effects on a child’s development and behavior. Blood lead levels less than 10 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL) are associated with increased behavioral effects, delayed puberty, and decreases in hearing, cognitive performance, and postnatal growth or height.
Some of these health effects are found even at low blood lead levels less than 5 μg/dL, including lower IQ scores, decreased academic achievement, and increases in both behavioral problems and attention-related behaviors.
There is a wide range of lead associated behavioral effects in the area of attention. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one example on the more severe end of the spectrum.
Older children and adults can also be subject to health issues from the ingestion of lead. The NIH report continues:
High blood lead levels greater than 15 μg/dL are associated with cardiovascular effects, nerve disorders, decreased kidney function, and fertility problems, including delayed conception and adverse effects on sperm and semen, such as lower sperm counts and motility.
Blood lead levels below 10 μg/dL are associated with decreased kidney function and increases in blood pressure, hypertension, and incidence of essential tremor, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system whose most recognizable feature is a tremor of the arms or hands during voluntary movements, such as eating and writing…
Pregnant women need to be particularly careful around lead. Maternal blood lead levels less than 5 μg/dL are associated with reduced fetal growth. Because the effects of lead are different for everyone, more research needs to be done to fully understand the health effects.
A 2004 study, supported by NIEHS, also showed that lifetime lead exposure may increase the risk of developing cataracts,3 a clouding of the eye lens resulting in partial loss of vision, which can be common in older people.
How do you test if there is lead in your water?
Testing for lead in your tap water can easily be done at home with a $30 test kit that is available from Amazon. The kit I’m recommending provides reliable results in 10 minutes. It’s calibrated to the EPA standards. (Not that I’m a huge fan of the EPA, but the standards for this particular topic are sound.)
The kit also tests for other contaminants that you definitely do not want in your water:
-10 Minute Lead Test: Lead can cause developmental, neurological, gastrointestinal and reproductive damage.
-Pesticide Test: Pesticides can be linked to increased cancer rates and organ damage.
-Bacteria/Coliform Test: Certain strains of bacteria can cause serious illness or death.
-Iron: High levels of iron can destroy your property and create a bad taste.
-Nitrates: Nitrates can cause developmental issues.
-Nitrites: Nitrites can cause developmental issues.
-Chlorine Level: Chlorine can increase your risk of cancer.
-Copper: High levels of copper can cause gastrointestinal issues and has been associated with liver damage and kidney disease.
-Alkalinity: High levels of alkaline can cause gastrointestinal issues.
-pH Test: High pH levels can cause plumbing and property damage.
-Water Hardness: Water hardness can create a bad taste and cause property damage.
The test for lead is very easy to use and read. It reminded me of a pregnancy test. You have to use “first draw” water – so test what has been sitting in the pipes overnight. This will have the highest level of accumulated toxins. When you test, you’ll either get a positive or negative reading based on whether lead levels are below or above 15 ppb. (For something more specific, you’ll need professional testing done.) The tests are one-time use only.
Depending on your situation, you may want to do additional testing at your office and your children’s school.
What should you do if there is lead in your water?
If you get a positive result, there are several steps you’ll want to take.
First, you’ll want to confirm the results with professional testing. The EPA website recommends these labs for water testing. Your state may also offer water testing.
Next you’ll want to let your municipality know. While the problem could be within your home, it’s entirely possible that it’s a citywide issue and other people should be warned.
Now, what should you consume?
First, it’s important to note that boiling water can actually increase the concentration of lead, which means cooking with it infuses your food with lead.
Perhaps I’m overly cautious, but, if there was lead in my tap water, I would not use it for drinking or cooking.
However, if you are in a situation in which you can’t afford to buy or filter your water, the CDC recommends taking these steps if you discover there is lead in your water:
You should take the following steps any time you wish to use tap water for drinking or cooking, especially when the water has been off and sitting in the pipes for more than 6 hours. Please note that additional flushing is necessary:
- a.Before using any tap water for drinking or cooking, run high-volume taps (such as your shower) on COLDfor 5 minutes or more;
- b. Then, run the kitchen tap on COLD for 1–2 additional minutes;
- c. Fill a clean container(s) with water from this tap. This water will be suitable for drinking, cooking, preparation of baby formula, or other consumption. To conserve water, collect multiple containers of water at once (after you have fully flushed the water from the tap as described).
In all situations, drink or cook only with water that comes out of the tap cold. Water that comes out of the tap warm or hot can contain much higher levels of lead. Boiling this water will NOT reduce the amount of lead in your water.
If there is a pregnant woman or if there are children in the house, I strongly urge you to find another option for drinking and cooking water, as the risk for health concerns is great.
If you’re getting bottled water, check here to see if it meets NSF standards of purity. (Some companies literally bottle the same water you are getting from the kitchen sink.)
We purchase our drinking water from a reliable local source in 5-gallon jugs and use a top-loading dispenser with hot and cold taps. (Prepper Tip: You can use a top-loading dispenser during a power outage, minus the hot and cold function.)
What kind of water filters remove lead?
First of all, those little jugs that you refill from your tap aren’t going to cut it if you have lead in your water.
Luckily, there are filtration systems that can remove more than 95% of the lead. (Again, if you have people at high risk for lead-related health issues, 95% may not be acceptable.)
Three of the more expensive systems:
- APEC reverse osmosis system
- Propur countertop filtration system
- Aquapail gravity filter (not pretty but it’s effective and useful in an emergency)
Other devices attach right to your faucet. These must be replaced after approximately 100 gallons.
Remember that if you have a fridge that dispenses water, you need to filter that too, in the presence of lead.
You really need to test your water.
This is a widespread issue with serious effects. I can’t recommend strongly enough that you take the responsibility upon yourself to test your water. We’ve seen repeatedly what happens when people rely on officials to keep them safe.
While this article states that boiling water does not remove all possible contaminants … it does not mention the option of distillation which does remove all contaminants (even radiation). Some twenty years ago my local city water began to taste awful. I learned that the problem was algae in the lake water the city was using. So I found a $15 deal in my local thrift store for a partly disabled countertop water distiller … with a broken fan blade. I ordered the replacement part, installed it, and ever since I have been using the resulting distilled water for drinking and cooking (only when water needs to be added to any food that needs heating, eg.) Food that can be cooked by steaming doesn’t need water from my distiller. Water for steam cooking becomes effectively “steam distilling on the fly.” [In the worst case if there were any VOC contaminants in such water, those boil off in the first few minutes that you allow before putting your food to be cooking (or baking) over that rising steam.] Historically some of the best steam cooking literature has come from the French and Chinese.
You learn to put distilled water in ice trays in your refrigerator freezer instead of relying on the fridge’s built-in ice maker that is plumbed into your city water supply.
Distilling is economical in that you don’t need to use distilled water to wash your car, to water your lawn, wash the dog, scrub your floors, etc.
Another benefit of distilling besides not having to worry about known contaminants that cities don’t always filter out … but also not having to worry about new contaminants that water regulations don’t yet (if ever) cover and that cities are either slow or indifferent to filter out until there’s something like a Flint, Michigan disaster and a public uproar. And for the most part, distilling means you usually don’t have to worry about running regular water quality tests.
The water filter industry likes to trash distilling on grounds that it removes any minerals you need from water — while ignoring that most useful minerals come from the food you eat plus sometimes some selective mineral supplements if you develop specific medical issues.