By JIMMY GUIDRY, MD | Louisiana State Health Officer
Safe drinking water has been in the public eye since the crisis in Flint, Mich., where insufficient water treatment exposed more than 100,000 residents to lead. The lead had leached from pipes into the water supply after the city changed water sources and did not properly treat the drinking water.
Taking note of Flint’s water crisis, as well as a situation in St. Joseph, La., where the aging water system had lead problems, the 2018 Louisiana Legislature passed Act 632. This law requires sampling and testing of drinking water in selected elementary schools on an annual basis.
Last month, the Department of Health responded, launching the pilot program for water testing at 12 schools. Far from finding elevated levels of lead in the water, I was encouraged by the results.
None of the schools were found to have lead in the drinking water in excess of 15 parts per billion (ppb). (Note: the federal safe drinking water requirement is 20 ppb, but to be extra cautious, the Louisiana pilot program set a more strict level.)
It would be safe to say that I was surprised by these results. In fact, our program included a communications component that was premised on the belief we would find some schools with elevated levels of lead.
This is because many Louisiana communities, as well as their school systems, have water systems with aging infrastructure. These conditions make it more likely to find lead in water due to old plumbing. As we designed the testing program, we selected older schools with older pipes and that had not had recent plumbing upgrades. With us purposefully looking at older schools, we fully expected to find some instance of elevated lead. The fact that we did not find this is extremely encouraging.
The testing process
All of the schools selected for this testing program were constructed prior to 1986 and had aging pipes and fixtures, points where lead could leach into the water. These are the schools we tested:
· Barkdull Faulk Elementary School, Monroe
· Bayou Blue Elementary School, Houma
· Bernard Terrace Elementary School, Baton Rouge
· Cherokee Elementary School, Alexandria
· Covington Elementary School, Covington
· Creswell Elementary School, Shreveport
· Drew Elementary School, West Monroe
· Dwight D. Eisenhower Academy of Global Studies, New Orleans
· Harahan Elementary School, Harahan
· Loranger Elementary School, Loranger
· Prairie Elementary School, Lafayette
· Prien Lake Elementary School, Lake Charles
Over a two-week period, our team collected water samples from several locations at each school, including sources before the drinking water enters the school and from taps within the school. The multiple sample points gave us the information to determine whether lead, if it was present, came from the water source, the plumbing fixtures or the plumbing within the school.
Corrosion is the most common cause of lead in drinking water, caused by a chemical reaction between the water and the lead pipes and solder. Proper water treatment can prevent corrosion.
After the samples were taken, they were analyzed at our LDH water testing lab in Baton Rouge. The full testing results are available here.
The hazards of lead exposure
People who are most at risk for health problems because of lead exposure are children under the age of 6. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there is no safe level of lead in blood for young children. Lead also presents a great risk to fetuses.
Childhood lead poisoning can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, slow growth and development, and cause problems with learning, behavior, hearing and speech. Effects of such problems include lower IQ, decreased ability to pay attention and underperformance in school.
At lower levels, there can be effects on the central nervous system, kidneys and hematopoietic system, involved in the production of blood (includes bone marrow, spleen, tonsils and lymph nodes). Very severe exposure to lead can result in coma, convulsions and death.
Lead is invisible to the naked eye and has no smell. Exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, allowing it to slip under the radar. It is for this reason that Louisiana law requires physicians to conduct lead blood level screenings for their patients under the age of 6.
Also, there is no way to correct the effects of lead poisoning.
Protecting children from exposure
The Department of Health has provided the testing results from its pilot program to the individual schools. If lead had been discovered at elevated levels, it would be the responsibility of the school to address the problem.
There are also steps parents and guardians can take to reduce lead exposure in the home. The most widespread and dangerous source of lead exposure is lead-based paint, found mostly in homes built before 1978, the year such paints were banned. Other sources include water, soil, consumer products such as toys and jewelry, candies imported from other countries, traditional home remedies and exposure from parents with jobs and hobbies involved in working with lead-based products, such as stained glass.
The CDC offers these guidelines for lead-based paint:
· Talk to your state or local health department about testing paint and dust from your home for lead.
· Make sure your child does not have access to peeling paint or chewable surfaces painted with lead-based paint.
· Children and pregnant women should not be present in housing built before 1978 that is undergoing renovation. They should not participate in activities that disturb old paint or in cleaning up paint debris after work is completed.
· Create barriers between living/play areas and lead sources. Until environmental clean-up is completed, you should clean and isolate all sources of lead. Close and lock doors to keep children away from chipping or peeling paint on walls. You can also apply temporary barriers such as contact paper or duct tape, to cover holes in walls or to block children’s access to other sources of lead.
· Regularly wash children’s hands and toys. Hands and toys can become contaminated from household dust or exterior soil. Both are known lead sources.
· Regularly wet-mop floors and wet-wipe window components. Because household dust is a major source of lead, you should wet-mop floors and wet-wipe horizontal surfaces every two to three weeks. Windowsills and wells can contain high levels of leaded dust. They should be kept clean. If feasible, windows should be shut to prevent abrasion of painted surfaces or opened from the top sash. Take off shoes when entering the house to prevent bringing lead-contaminated soil in from outside.
· Prevent children from playing in bare soil; if possible, provide them with sandboxes. Plant grass on areas of bare soil or cover the soil with grass seed, mulch or wood chips, if possible. Until the bare soil is covered, move play areas away from bare soil and away from the sides of the house. If you have a sandbox, cover the box when not in use to prevent cats from using it as a litter box. That will help protect children from exposure to animal waste.
Guidelines for reducing lead exposure from non-paint sources include:
· Avoid using traditional folk medicine and cosmetics that may contain lead.
· Avoid eating candies imported from Mexico.
· Avoid using containers, cookware or tableware that are not shown to be lead free.
· Remove recalled toys and toy jewelry immediately from children.
· Use only cold water from the tap for drinking, cooking and making baby formula. Hot water is more likely to contain higher levels of lead.
· Shower and change clothes after finishing a task that involves working with lead-based products such as stained glass, making bullets or using a firing range.
For more information on lead, click here.