Lead in water

Oct. 1, 1988, midnight | 35 years, 8 months ago

By Samie Jaffrey

A study initiated by Silver Chips,indicates that the lead content in Blair's drinking water averages 25 parts per billion (ppb), a level which exceeds and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines that will be put into effect in June, 1989.

The EPA's newly adopted policy will lower its lead-in-water standard to an average of 10 ppb from the 50 ppb limit set in the 1960s. This new policy may require that the water feeding Blair's fountains be treated to reduce the lead content.

Blair's water was tested by a student under the supervision of chemistry teacher Al Currey on the Magnet's Atomic Absorption spectrophotometer last year. Samples were taken at 7:35 a.m. and 3:05 p.m. at each of Blair's 14 water fountains. According to the spectrophotometer's manual, the tests should be accurate within 10 ppb. In order for the test results to be scientifically significant, the tests need to be replicated.

According to Greg Helms, an EPA Environmental Specialist in the Department of Drinking Water, "If the lead content is above 20 ppb, we urge people to institute a tap flushing program or a corrositivity control policy. If the lead content is above 50 ppb, [the water] should not be used at all."

The tap flushing program involves simply running the water for a few minutes. In the school, however, "the corrosion control will be done at the plant. There, chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and phosphate chemicals would be added, says Helms.

One reason for the change of policy was relatively new research that suggested that amounts of lead well below those previously considered hazardous can adversely affect the intelligence and behavior of young children. One study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that young children with lead levels below 25 micrograms per deciliter of blood level assumed safe by the EPA had IQs significantly lower than those with only 10 micrograms. Furthermore, teachers also perceived dramatic differences between the two groups. The group with 25 micrograms of lead tended to be unable to follow a sequence of directions while only eight percent of the 10 microgram group were in that category.

Other research suggests that excess lead in drinking water exacerbates hypertension in middle-aged adults, increases the chances of premature births and stillborn infants and causes lower birth weights and heights. One study showed that children who absorbed lead while still in the womb performed worst on physical and mental tests in the first years of their life.

In teenagers however, there may be fewer adverse effects to lead in water. According to Helms, because there is one third less absorption in healthy teens, they would not be affected to a great extent. Ronnie Levin, an EPA designated specialist who testified to the congressional committee that was investigating water quality, however, says, "Everybody is affected by lead. Neurological and cognitive effects are experienced mostly in the young. Cardiovascular [side effects are] more in adults, blacks more than whites, men more than women… The systems that are affected most in teenagers are reproductive and kidney function."

A 1986 amendment to the Clean Drinking Water Act also mandated a change to the EPA drinking water policy. According to Helms, "The congress named 83 compounds that need to be controlled in drinking water. Lead was one of them because of all the new data since the 1962 Public Health Standard."

Much of the lead in water comes from the cooling mechanisms in the fountains. Following a 1986 EPA amendment to the Safe Drinking Water act, the use of solder of flux exceeding 0.2 percent lead content is prohibited.

Two years ago, Blair's water was tested, and a tap flushing program was instituted after the lead content was determined to be 450 ppb, nine times more than the then-established EPA standard. According to principal Phillip Gainous, "They suspected that lead residues were in the water. They found that when the flushed the pipes, the lead residues were washed away. [A few months later] they came back and tested the water and found that it was safe… and we stopped [the flushing program]." After further examination, the solder used to bond the pipes was found to contain 50 percent lead. This high content was blamed on the lead problem.

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