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We can all minimize exposure to lead

May 04, 2016
International media coverage of Flint, Michigan’s crisis with lead in its drinking water underscores the importance of monitoring and protecting our drinking water. Ontario’s drinking water still remains among the best protected in the world, but lead can still be found in some metal taps, interior plumbing, or the pipe connecting a house to the main water system.

International media coverage of Flint, Michigan’s crisis with lead in its drinking water underscores the importance of monitoring and protecting our drinking water. Ontario’s drinking water still remains among the best protected in the world, but lead can still be found in some metal taps, interior plumbing, or the pipe connecting a house to the main water system. 

Lead is an element that naturally occurs at low levels in our environment. Lead is no longer in gasoline or in many commercial products, and exposures to lead continue to decrease in the general population. Many older homes have lead-based paints and renovation, especially paint removal, is a substantial source of exposure. To ensure home renovations are done safely, check with a professional.

Even small amounts of exposure can affect the health of our most vulnerable populations, including pregnant women, infants and children, as well as newcomers and those with low income or poor nutrition. Infants and children are at a higher risk than adults because of hand-to-mouth behaviour, and because their bodies absorb lead more easily than adults.

Although drinking water is not typically the most significant source of exposure to lead, it can be found in some drinking water due to leaching from lead service lines, lead solder in plumbing or even brass fittings that may be used in faucets. Homes built after 1989 are unlikely to have lead services or lead solder. There is a particular risk for infants living in homes built before the 1950s, if they are fed breastmilk substitutes (infant formula) reconstituted with drinking water. 

Lead levels in drinking water also depend on the chemistry of the water supply. The pH levels of your water may corrode the pipes and plumbing materials, increasing the lead concentration in the water. 

If you are concerned about lead exposure through tap water, you can have your water tested by an accredited laboratory for a fee. When you get your results you may contact a public health inspector at the health unit and discuss your options. 

In the meantime always use cold water for cooking or drinking. If tap water has been sitting stagnant for hours—such as in the morning, or when you have been at work all day—let water run until it is cold (about two minutes) before using for drinking, cooking, or making baby breastmilk substitutes or infant formula. 

Household water filters or treatment devices are available that have been certified to remove lead. They may use carbon-based filters, reverse osmosis, or distillation. For best results these devices should be installed at the taps where you most commonly draw drinking water, such as the kitchen sink. When purchasing a device make sure it is clearly identified as certified with the NSF International standard for the removal of lead, and install and maintain it according to the instructions provided by the manufacturer.

A permanent solution to the problem could involve contacting your municipality, water utility or a plumber to determine the source of lead in your water. Be aware that in most communities, the portion of the service line from the curb to the house is the responsibility of the homeowner.

For information on sources of lead in the home, visit simcoemuskokahealth.org, or call Health Connection at 705-721-7520 or 1-877-721-7520.

Dr. Gardner is the Medical Officer of Health at the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit.

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