Should I be worried about lead in my drinking water?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

Like a lot of people, I was shocked by the water disaster in Flint, Michigan. I felt terrible for those people. But then I started to wonder: How safe is my drinking water? Should I be worried?

DEAR READER:

The sad answer to your question is that I don’t know, and neither may your local department of public health.

Until a little more than a hundred years ago, the world’s lead was virtually all buried in the ground, where nature put it. Then it was extracted from the earth and added to gasoline and paint, and turned into pipes, solder for pipes and plumbing fixtures. Automobiles put lead into the air. Paint peeling from walls was tasted by toddlers and, because lead tastes sweet, was tasted again. And lead appeared in the drinking water.

Governments (although not most citizens) have known about this problem since the turn of the 20th century. However, only in recent decades has any action been taken. Lead now is banned in gasoline and paint. The Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 have reduced, but not eliminated, lead in U.S. drinking water.

As a result, lead in our environment has been reduced. In addition, the number of children with toxic levels of lead in their blood has dropped. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there still are half a million children in the United States with high blood levels of lead. Every one of those children is at risk for permanent brain damage.

The situation in Flint is unusual. An entirely new water supply was provided to the city. The quality of the water was not rigorously checked. When the new water was found to be leaching lead out of the pipes and into the drinking water, a protective chemical was not added. There are many credible charges, not yet tested in court, that local, state and federal government officials did not take action when the problem was brought to their attention.

Yet Flint is far from unique. Lead pollution of the water supply has been found in Newark, New Jersey; Cleveland and Sebring, Ohio; New York City; and Jackson, Mississippi. Recently, the drinking fountains in four schools in Boston were shut down because of high lead levels.

Does this mean that other cities can breathe a sigh of relief? Does it mean that the rest of Boston’s schools can rest easy? Unfortunately, too often it means that the water supply hasn’t been checked thoroughly — so we simply don’t know. That’s because there hasn’t been enough money allocated for public health.

Consider contacting your local department of public health and asking two questions. First: What are the lead levels in my community’s water, and when were they last measured? Second: What percentage of adults and children in my community have unacceptably high blood lead levels?

If the employees there say they don’t know, or if they do know and you don’t like the answers, I’d suggest asking your representatives in the state and federal governments what they think should be done. There are half a million children who deserve an answer.