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Health, Science, Environment

Worried about lead? Here’s what you need to know

An "out of order" sign hangs from the pipes of a water fountain at Patrick Henry Elementary School in St. Louis.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
An "out of order" sign hangs from the pipes of a water fountain at Patrick Henry Elementary School in St. Louis.

When preliminary tests by St. Louis Public Schools found that dozens of faucets and water fountains contained traces of lead, the district shut them off before the school year began.

District spokesperson Patrick Wallace said that to his knowledge, the schools’ water had not been tested for lead within the past 10 years.

A full survey released Thursday found elevated lead levels in 88 district water fountains and sinks.

Lead is commonly found in old paints and pipes and may be inhaled as a dust. It's unusual for high levels of lead to be found in water sources, because utilities treat the water to make it non-corrosive as it flows through pipes.

Though trace amounts of lead in an individual’s blood is not unusual, it can have serious side effects at higher doses. Children and pregnant women are particularly at risk, as lead can damage a developing brain.

Final results of lead tests in schools should help pinpoint cause

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintain that “no safe blood lead level in children has been identified.” The National Institutes of Health put it more bluntly: “No amount of lead is safe. Eliminating all lead exposure in our environment is our best course of action.”

But there is good news: Lead exposure is preventable, and rates continue to decline.

To listen to St. Louis On the Air’s discussion of lead prevention efforts in the region, click here.

How lead can affect your health

Even at low levels, lead exposure in children can lead to behavioral or learning problems, slowed growth, hearing problems or anemia. Lead accumulates in your body over time and can have an adverse effect on pregnancies, including premature birth. In adults, high levels of lead can reduce kidney function, increase blood pressure and the risk of hypertension.

The best way to know if your child is being exposed to high amounts of lead is to take a blood lead test. In the city of St. Louis and many Missouri zip codes, the tests are required every year for children under 6. Tests also are recommended for children who stay in the city for more than 10 hours a week, such as at a daycare or relative’s home.

“Unless it’s at extremely high levels, [lead exposure] can be subtle when it’s happening," said Dr. Jerome O’Neil, a pediatrician at Southwest Pediatrics in St. Louis Hills. "But the outcomes are things like learning problems in school, and other behavioral problems which show up later on.”

Despite the annual testing requirement, only about half of children in the city of St. Louis take the tests. About 9 percent of the children who were tested last year — 998 kids in total — had blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. That’s the CDC’s cutoff for when medical personnel should test the child’s blood more frequently and try to eliminate potential sources of lead in their home.

“It may mean scraping off paint and repainting. Some people had done remodeling, and knocked down walls, and there was dust around — there are special soaps to wash down walls," O'Neil said. "My experience is it does not mean moving most of the time, but you do have to follow up and find out where the problem was."

Previously, the CDC used a “level of concern” cutoff at 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood. Between 1976 and 1980, 88 percent of U.S. children below 6 had lead levels above 10 micrograms, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. In 2010, that level was 0.8 percent, and public health authorities have since moved the cutoff to 5 micrograms.

"We have older houses that have lead paint on windows and doors, and a lot of effort has been done to help make those houses lead safe over the years," said Jeanine Arrighi, a health services manager for the St. Louis Health Department. "It's just the extent of how many houses in the city still are affected by it."

For more information on lead exposure and prevention, visit the CDC’s website.

What's in the water?

The St. Louis water supply, thought to be one of the best in the country, comes from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The city is required to collect a minimum of 50 samples of water every three years to be tested for lead. Since 2005, the highest lead concentration found in the city's water supply is 6.7 parts per billion. Under the Environmental Protection Agency's Lead and Copper Rule, adopted by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, corrosion control must be taken if levels exceed 15 parts per billion.

Maggie Crane, spokesperson for the mayor's office, said that the raw water that St. Louis gets is much less corrosive than the water in Flint, Michigan, where a switch to a different source in 2014 caused leads pipes to deteriorate because the new water supply was more corrosive. To prevent that corrosion in St. Louis, city officials use a lime softening process that raises the water's pH, which causes the water to deposit minerals along the inside of the pipe. This creates a barrier that separates water from lead.

Some concerns were raised about the lime softening process when Flint officials said that it was how they controlled corrosion in the water supply. Experts interviewed by Michigan Radio said using lime isn't enough and the process could have worsened the quality of the water supply because it was not raising the pH levels properly.  

In 1986, the EPA banned the use of lead in public water systems. The city currently does not have any lead pipes in its distribution system. However, updating the service lines that are connected to it is the responsibility of the homeowner, business, school, or whoever owns the building. 

"It can explain why one home might not test at all for lead and the house next to it might have a high reading," Crane said. 

An aged plumbing system, faucets and other fixtures can also leach lead into the water.

Resources in St. Louis

Annual blood lead tests are required for children under the age of 6 who live or spend more than 10 hours a week in the city of St. Louis and other targeted zip codes (highlighted here). Testing can be done in a doctor’s office or at a city or public health department, such as:

 

St. Louis Department of Health: 314-657-1487
Free tests are provided to children under six and pregnant women. Walk-ins are welcome at 1520 Market St., Suite 4051. St. Louis, MO 63103

 

St. Louis County Department of Health locations:
North Central Community Health Center in Pine Lawn: 314-679-7800
South County Health Center in Sunset Hills: 314-842-1300
John C. Murphy Center in Berkeley: 314-615-0500

 

St. Clair County Health Department: 618-233-6170

 

In the city of St. Louis, residential properties can be inspected for lead free of charge. Call Lead Safe St. Louis’ hotline number: 314-657-1487. Under some circumstances, the city can also assist property owners with the cost of lead remediation.

 

St. Clair County runs a Lead Hazard Control Program, which can provide home repair assistance under certain income guidelines: 618-825-3211

 

More questions about lead in St. Louis? Find us on Twitter: @durrieB, @StoriesByEli, and @cmpcamille.

 

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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