Lead in our veins

“We don’t want to be penny-wise and pound-foolish in trying to save a few dollars on something that can be prevented and gives us healthier children and lower health-care costs.”

– Brian Peterson, Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson

New research has raised serious questions about the safety of public drinking-water supplies nationwide, and Asheville is right in the thick of the fray.

Studies conducted at UNCA’s Environmental Quality Institute last year have revealed previously unrecognized sources of lead contamination that can cause significant, irreversible neurological damage, particularly in young children.

Two in-depth EQI studies, completed last December, assessed the impact of the leaded-brass meters and other water-service parts that most providers use to connect people’s homes to the public water system.

“Basically, we’ve found that the amounts of lead discharged into people’s drinking water from these … parts are sufficient, although they’re relatively small … to cause measurable neurological damage, IQ damage and learning deficits in young children,” reports Dr. Richard Maas, co-director (with Dr. Steven Patch) of the Environmental Quality Institute. The research also showed that older water-service parts continue to put significant amounts of lead into drinking water over extended periods of time. The EQI, the country’s leading research center studying lead in drinking water nationwide, has published more than 60 studies on the subject over the last 15 years.

Meanwhile, work by other researchers in recent years has shown that even lead levels previously considered safe can cause significant health effects.

Together, these two findings have dealt a potent one-two punch to current standards for lead in drinking water.

Ironically, even as lead solder was being banned from plumbing, and public water suppliers nationwide were spending hundreds of millions of dollars treating their water to minimize the amount of lead it would leach from the system, public building codes were still allowing leaded-brass fixtures in new construction — and those same water systems were unwittingly introducing more lead via their own meters and service parts.

For example, Asheville’s Water Resources Department (which serves Asheville and parts of Buncombe and north Henderson counties) switched over to no-lead water meters several years ago — ahead of many water systems nationwide — but is still using leaded-brass water-service parts, reports interim Director David Hanks.

And compounding the problem locally is the fact that many mountain communities have particularly acidic water supplies that tend to leach out more lead.

The upshot, as Maas explains, is that “a lot of these [lead] levels in water that were relatively low that we weren’t as concerned about … they’re actually a major problem.”

Children at risk

Although lead is harmful to both children and adults, “It takes about five times more lead exposure to cause an equivalent amount of neurological damage in an adult,” notes Maas.

Although the 1988 federal lead ban reduced the maximum allowable level of lead in water-service parts from 20 percent to 7 percent, “We now know that lead causes significant and irreversible neurological damage in young children at far lower exposure levels than we thought in 1988,” he reports.

Maas points to recent medical studies — including a major one done in 2001 by Dr. Bruce Lanphear, associate professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center — showing “that even very low blood-lead levels, down to even 2 micrograms per deciliter, can cause measurable IQ deficits or learning deficits in children.

“Right now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention … doesn’t consider a child officially lead-poisoned unless their [blood-lead] level is up to 10 micrograms per deciliter,” says Maas. “But it’s also recognized by the EPA [and] CDC … that there is no threshold dose below which lead does not cause neurological damage in infants and young children.”

One recent medical study (by Dr. Robert Canfield of Cornell University, reported in the April 17, 2003 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine) “shows that a child will lose about 7 IQ points over the first 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead exposure,” notes Maas.

The study, he explains, “compared [6-year old] children who had a very low blood-lead level of just one microgram per deciliter with a matched group … who had blood-lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter. They found a 7.4 IQ difference between the two groups.

“This is pretty shocking,” continues Maas, noting that the CDC is reviewing that new evidence.

CDC information officer Kathy Harben confirmed that a working group of the agency’s Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention is in the process of reassessing the impact of very low blood-lead levels, with a decision likely sometime this fall.

Part of the problem, says Maas, is that previous studies have looked only at higher blood-lead levels: “at the difference, say, between children that had [a blood-lead level of] 10 and children that had [a blood-lead level of] 30. They found maybe a 4-point IQ difference between [the two groups].”

Unfortunately, researchers had extrapolated from these results — incorrectly, as it turns out — “that you only have a 2 IQ point difference for each 10 micrograms-per-deciliter change in blood-lead levels,” says Maas.

But recent studies by Canfield and others seem to show that children’s response to lead exposure isn’t linear. “The first small amount of lead that a child is exposed to actually causes a lot of neurological damage, [while] additional — even large additional amounts — only cause a small additional amount of … damage,” says Maas.

How significant is a loss of 7 IQ points? In Do The Right Thing (a documentary just released by the Asheville-based Heron Productions to help persuade public water providers to switch over to no-lead-brass service parts), Canfield puts it this way: “Consider … a child at the lower end of the spectrum, with an IQ of 77. If you take 7 points of IQ away from that child and they are at 70, that qualifies them for special education in most states. In a special-education setting … there is a higher cost associated with educating those children.”

And Lanphear, who’s also in the video, notes: “It’s been estimated that the annual cost of lead poisoning among children in the United States is about $43 billion … primarily because of a child’s reduced lifetime earnings. It’s estimated that for every 1-point drop in IQ, a child will make about $12,000 less during their lifetime.”

But a drop in IQ level is not the only consequence of lead exposure, Canfield explains. “There are [also] behavioral outcomes that are associated with lead. … We find that even during the preschool years, children with higher blood-lead concentrations are rated as being more impulsive and hyperactive and oppositional towards their parents and peers. … These kinds of behaviors have been linked by other researchers to outcomes in adolescence, such as juvenile delinquency and greater involvement in the criminal-justice system.”

A survey conducted by the CDC’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch in 1999-2000 found that 2.2 percent of U.S. children ages 1 to 5 had blood-lead levels of at least 10 micrograms per deciliter. That works out to roughly 434,000 children — and the survey didn’t even consider children in other age groups, or children with lower (but still damaging) blood-lead levels.

Right outside your door

When the EQI did its two studies in 2002, reports Maas, “We found that the IQ damage to a child in the house (and of course, it’s going to vary with the child’s drinking habits and how corrosive the water in that particular town is) … caused just by those [leaded-brass service] parts would vary anywhere between 1/2 and 2-1/2 IQ points.”

Is that really all that much? The point, says Maas, is that the effects of lead exposure are cumulative: “That’s just one source, on top of whatever other sources you might have. … Now that we know that the first small exposure causes most of the neurologic damage, that means that a small exposure [affecting] tens of millions of people is actually of more concern than a larger exposure [affecting] a smaller number of people.”

“I personally think that it’s extremely concerning, if not shocking, to see that parts that are being put out in front of hundreds of millions of Americans’ homes have enough lead in them to cause that much neurological damage to a young child living in the house.”

In houses built since 1988, which have no lead solder in the plumbing, Maas estimates that leaded-brass meters and service parts are probably the biggest source of lead contamination. On the other hand, “If you have a house built before 1988 with lead solder, then that’s probably the biggest source of lead.”

But, he stresses, the public water suppliers are not the bad guys here: “[They] didn’t create this problem. All these public water systems are delivering good, pure, high-quality water that has no lead in it. … The problem is that [through building codes] we allowed lead solder to be used in plumbing homes, and … leaded-brass faucet fixtures and cutout valves, and of course these leaded-brass meters.”

When the federal Lead and Copper Rule was passed in 1991, “It basically asked the water suppliers to come to the rescue of a problem that they had nothing to do with creating,” notes Maas.

Since then, suppliers have spent “hundreds of millions of dollars and tremendous effort reducing the public’s exposure to lead” by treating the water so it leaches less lead, Maas explains.

“That’s taken care of part of the problem,” he admits. “But we now know that the problem extends to much lower exposures.”

It’s ironic, says Maas, that while the public water suppliers were actually leading the way in reducing the public exposure to lead, “They forgot about these [leaded-brass] parts they actually put in the system.”

And these are parts, he points out, “that the consumer knows nothing about and wouldn’t have any control over even if they wanted to get all the lead out of the plumbing system. They could change everything in their house, but they wouldn’t be able to do anything about those that are owned by the water system.”

It hasn’t helped matters, either, adds Maas, that under the 1988 federal lead ban, any leaded-brass service parts containing less than 8 percent lead can legally be labeled “lead free.” “The term itself is a lie, because clearly it’s not [lead-free]. What we’re talking about now is truly no-lead brass, where no lead is purposely added to the alloy.”

But why have manufacturers continued to use any lead at all? According to Greg Bell, U.S. sales manager for Cambridge Brass (which produces no-lead-brass service parts), it comes down to cost: Switching over to no-lead brass means changing “the whole process, right from the foundry process through to the machining process. … It’s definitely an investment,” he explains. “Lead makes [brass alloy] a very soft, malleable metal. … The harder the metal, the harder it is on the tooling; therefore you have to adjust your tooling [and] you can’t get as many cuts out of it as you normally would.”

Mountain water

Since 1987, the EQI research program has tested more than 130,000 residences in North America for lead in drinking water, Maas reports — including hundreds of homes in Asheville, Hendersonville, Weaverville and other mountain communities.

Homes in Western North Carolina, says Maas, “tend to have highly corrosive water, with lead concentrations that are higher than normal.”

The irony, he explains, “is that most of the towns in WNC have a very clean, pure, high-elevation-stream water supply. … [But] that water is exactly the kind that tends to be more … corrosive and will leach more lead.”

As a result, “It’s even more important for WNC public water suppliers to use no-lead water meters and water-server parts,” Maas asserts.

An informal survey of several local water departments found that all were using leaded-brass service parts, though both Asheville and Weaverville have switched to no-lead meters in recent years (see box: “And you thought you were confused”).

In the wake of a recent meeting with Maas to discuss the EQI’s recent findings, interim Director David Hanks of Asheville’s Water Resources Department said: “We will probably be taking a look at [switching over to no-lead service parts],” says . “We’ll have to look at the cost more than anything else and see if we can withstand a 30 percent increase [for these parts] or not. … If it’s viable, we’ll do it.”

The Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson is responsible for putting together the water agency’s budget. Asked about the situation, Authority member Brian Peterson (who also serves on the Asheville City Council), said, “I think that, particularly coming from Dr. Maas — a former member of the Water Authority — I hope we would … ask him to give us a presentation sometime in the near future.”

As for the higher cost of no-lead service parts, Peterson observed: “We may have to balance in the skyrocketing cost of health care. We don’t want to be penny-wise and pound-foolish in trying to save a few dollars on something that can be prevented and gives us healthier children and lower health-care costs.”

After failing to meet the standards of the Federal Lead and Copper Rule back in 1992, the Regional Water Authority spent the next five years implementing changes to get their lead levels down, says Leslie Carreiro, a laboratory technician at the system’s North Fork Direct Filtration Treatment Plant.

Since 1997, the system’s water has passed all the monitoring rounds, with about 10 percent or less of the houses tested showing any detectable lead. In the latest round, conducted earlier this year, only five of the 52 houses tested showed any detectable lead — one with a level higher than the state’s “maximum containment level” of 0.015 parts per billion.

The Water Authority, notes Maas, has done a good job of reducing its lead levels. “They’ve been very conscientious about it [and] they certainly deserve credit for that.”

But that, he adds, “doesn’t change the recommendation that everybody ought to get their water tested … because 10 percent is still a pretty high risk.”

It should be noted that the federal Lead and Copper Rule requires water departments to take all their samples from houses built between 1982 and 1988 — which are thought to be most at risk for lead contamination. That’s because they were built before the 1988 ban on lead solder took effect — and they still retain more lead in their plumbing systems than older homes, which have had more time to have the lead in their plumbing leached out.

According to EQI’s own testing database, explains Maas, “We know that on the whole, those houses built between ’82 and ’88 are in fact somewhat higher risk, statistically, than older houses.” But the difference, he stresses, “isn’t very great. In other words, the ones [built] before [1982] are slightly lower risk … and the ones [built] after [1988] have, on average, about half the lead as [houses] had before they banned the lead solder.”

Neighboring Hendersonville, meanwhile, has its own woes. The city (which has a separate water system serving most of Henderson and part of Polk counties) has had trouble meeting federal standards over the years, though in 2000, notes acting Superintendent Keith Kirchner of the Hendersonville Water Department, “we qualified for reduced monitoring.”

But the department is still using leaded-brass water meters and service parts. And in the latest monitoring round (done in July and August of this year), says Kirchner, nine of the 33 samples taken showed detectable lead — and six of those were out of compliance. Kirchner attributes those results “to a problem here at the plant.”

The Hendersonville Water Department, says Maas, is “doing the best they can, but their water is very corrosive. So if you’re in Hendersonville, you definitely need to get your water tested, and … you definitely want to be switching over to no-lead water-service parts.”

But even when a water department’s lead levels meet federal requirements, stresses Maas, “We now know that’s not low enough. There are still going to be a lot of people out there that have a high blood-lead level.”

Doing the right thing

Until recently, “We didn’t know that the [neurological] damage was that bad. … And no-lead versions of these [service] parts weren’t available,” Maas explains.

But, he adds, “Given that we now know the effect of low-level lead exposure, and no-lead parts are readily available, it clearly is time for all public water suppliers across the country to … switch over to no-lead parts for all future installations.”

Right now, estimates Maas, “About 10 percent of the water districts in the country have switched to true no-lead water meters and water-service parts. The other 90 percent are still using the traditional 5- to 7-percent leaded-brass parts.”

Among the communities that have already switched over are Los Angeles; Detroit; Tampa, Fla.; Bangor, Maine; Portland, Ore.; and several towns in Vermont.

Maas is hoping Do The Right Thing will help raise awareness about the dangers of lead and leaded-brass service parts. The documentary — produced by Asheville locals Debra Roberts and Rick Aguar of Heron Productions — features interviews with Maas, Lanphear, Canfield, Dr. Pamela Meyer of the CDC’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch, Lynn Stovall (general manager of the Greenville, S.C., water system) and Gerry Gunn of Cambridge Brass.

The film premiered at a conference for the New England section of the Water Works Association in Quebec last month, where Maas presented these latest findings; he was also able to meet with water officials for the province of Quebec.

“My trip to Quebec was very successful,” he reports. “We were able to convince the entire province to require only no-lead service parts … in public water supplies.”

Last week, Maas was in San Diego to present his research to the California/Nevada section of the American Water Works Association.

Knowing what we know now, concludes Maas: “To look back and see that the water departments were still installing leaded-brass parts in 2003 is going to look rather foolhardy a little bit down the line. … When you put one of these parts in, it’s often in for the next 50 years … exposing children to lead for the next two generations.”

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