Ask ELi: Local Lead Contamination Sources?

Monday, February 8, 2016, 12:52 am
By: 
Ken Sperber

Image courtesy Ingham County Health Department; reporting assistance from Alice Dreger.

The question:

Where are some of the common sources of lead contamination in our area, and what can be done about protecting children?

Ingham County stats:

Lead contamination can come from several sources in residential, commercial, and public buildings, including lead paint and contaminated water. From 2008-2013, authorities identified an average of 283 lead poisoned children in Ingham County each year. There were 215 children identified with lead poisoning in 2013, according to data provided to Ingham County Health Department (ICHD) by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

While the overall lead poisoning rate in Ingham County among kids tested is about 5%, approximately half of Lansing census tracts have lead poisoning rates of 10-13% among kids tested. Roughly 70% of lead poisoned children in Ingham County live in rental housing.

How does East Lansing water fare in tests?

East Lansing's tap water is supplied by the East Lansing-Meridian Water and Sewer Authority. According to Clyde Dugan, Manager for the Authority, following the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Lead & Copper Rule, in 1992 the Authority identified 60 sampling locations for water testing. Dugan explains, “All sample locations are from private residences, and the samples are taken by the homeowners following instructions provided by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).”

Says Dugan, “The EPA recommends that we take our compliance samples from that same sample set [established in 1992] so long as the sites are available and the homeowners are willing to cooperate. We are required to get at least 30 samples per compliance period, and so far we have been able to get all of our compliance samples from that initial set of addresses.”

Dugan explained to ELi that, in the 2015 cycle of testing, “There was one sample out of 31 that was above the AL [action level]. This sample was from a household bath tap. We immediately notified the homeowner and discussed the situation. They’d had a plumber do some work on the bathroom plumbing not long prior to sampling. Follow-up samples were taken from the bath & kitchen using the same protocol and both were below the action level.” In other words, the problem of lead in the water was arising from the house's own plumbing and was fixed.

By contrast, Flint's water was systematically corrosive, and that meant that if there was lead in pipes along the way, in the public infrastructure or in individual buildings' plumbing, the odds of lead getting into the water was elevated. One thing public authorities normally do is treat water to make sure it is not too corrosive. Dugan shared with us a draft of the 2015 report.

How can we protect children?

As far as drinking water goes, Dugan explains, “home or building owners are encouraged to get their water tested if they have any concern about lead in their drinking water.” You can call the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791. There’s also testing information on the East Lansing-Meridian water authority’s website.

Ingham County Health Department (ICHD) has also been working to share information about how to test your water, your house (including paint), and your child for lead. They are distributing information about preventative, low-cost measures that could be taken in Ingham County, some of which are contingent on local governmental will.

ICHD will be hosting a press conference on February 24, 2016 at 10:00 a.m. to discuss and answer questions about its lead poisoning prevention initiatives and about local lead issues. In the meantime, ICHD encourages area residents to visit their “Healthy Homes” website. There residents will find many resources and simple, low-cost, preventative steps. The link also has comprehensive information about testing recommendations and about lead poisoning data and resources for Ingham County.

Some highlights from the ICHD website:

  • All kids under age 6 living in homes built before 1978 need to be tested for lead. Frequency of testing depends on result of initial or subsequent tests. Test results at or above 5 mg/DL require action. You can ask your child’s doctor’s office about lead testing.
  • As of October 2015, Lansing Board of Water & Light had replaced most, but not all, of the lead service lines in the BWL system. (BWL and the East Lansing-Meridian Water Authority sometimes share materials, although in 2015, according to the Authority, "East Lansing received water solely from the Authority’s Water Conditioning Plant.") More information about lead pipes and what can be done about them is available at BWL's dedicated webpage.
  • Even though 70% of lead poisoned children in Ingham County live in rental housing, no local units of government in Ingham County, including the Cities of Lansing and East Lansing, require lead clearance as part of their rental inspection or licensing programs. According to state and national experts, this is a measure that could prevent many lead poisoning cases in Ingham County each year.

 
By contrast, in some cities, such as Rochester, New York, authorities work to protect children from lead contamination by amending their property maintenance codes, adding lead inspections for issuances of “Certificate of Occupancy” for rental properties, and targeting “high risk” housing for lead inspections.

Bridge magazine’s article, “Far from Flint, Lead Remains an Irreversible Scourge” discusses that the unfolding of the Flint water crises has re-focused our attention on the risks of lead poisoning of young children not only from tap water but from lead paint. Author Mike Wilkinson writes, “In much of the state where lead is a problem, the source of poisoning has been the traditional culprits: old lead paint on homes built before 1978, lead residue in dust and soil. Young children are particularly susceptible because of their proximity – on the ground – to the most common sources of lead. They crawl on their hands, pick up dust and dirt and put their hands in their mouths.”

Paul Haan of the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan said in that same article, “More needs to be done to eliminate the problem before a child tests positive.” Haan goes on to say, “The problem is we're still using kids as lead detectors.”