Q&A: The Risks of Lead Exposure and What to Do About Them

Lilo H. Stainton | September 24, 2019 | Health Care
The latest results from the testing of water filters in Newark are good, but New Jersey residents still have a lot of questions about lead
Lead paint
For children, the primary source of lead poisoning comes from lead-based paint.

The latest water news from Newark may be good, with city and state officials announcing yesterday that follow-up testing of tap filters in properties known to have lead service lines shows they are removing lead in the vast majority of cases. Officials in Newark have been distributing water to thousands of residents and working to replace lead service lines after initial tests showed unsafe levels of the metal in two of three homes tested this summer.

But residents of Brick City and other Garden State communities continue to have questions about the presence of lead in their homes and drinking water, its impact on their families, and what they can do to protect them.

Q: What about the water in my community? How do I know if it’s really safe?

A: As with Newark, much of the nation’s aging water infrastructure involves lead pipes or connections; while these were banned for new construction in New Jersey in the late 1980s, many remain in use today. Although they are being replaced in some communities, including Newark, water companies also use approved chemical additives in an effort to keep lead in pipes from leaching into the water they carry.

Dozens  of municipal and private water systems serve New Jerseyans — or those without private wells — and all are subject to regular testing for a variety of substances, including lead. The water systems keep this information on file and share it with customers at least once a year. For the latest results, people are urged to contact the water company or municipal water system listed on their water bill.

The state Department of Environmental Protection also offers tips for residents to reduce the impact of lead in their water, like running the taps for 15 to 30 seconds if they haven’t been active in a while and using only cold water for cooking or mixing baby formula. It also cautions that boiling does not remove lead from the water. The website also includes a list of certified drinking water labs that you can pay to test your water, a good option for those with private wells.

If you don’t have a water bill handy, or if the account is in a landlord’s name, you can go to the DEP’s water supply search tool to identify which company or public system serves your community. (Scroll down, past “Water Supply and Geoscience” and “Safe Drinking Water” and click on the fifth bullet point, “What Community Water System Serves My Town.” Then scroll through the list of counties and towns for yours, and click the green submit button.)

Q: Apart from water systems, where else does lead come from?

 A: For children, the primary source of lead poisoning comes from older homes and apartments with lead-based paint, which was banned in 1977. Youngsters ingest the substance if they eat paint chips from walls — which can have a sweet taste, experts note — or get paint dust on their hands and then put their fingers in their mouths; the paint dust is commonly found on baseboards or window ledges.

Adults are at risk for inhaling or unknowingly swallowing traces of the same lead-tainted dust. Lead is also an ingredient in some jewelry and toys and, in some countries, it is a component of the plastic-making process. In addition, it is found in car batteries and other auto parts, some plumbing components, bullets, and fishing weights, so people who work in related fields can be exposed on the job. This dust is also carried home on their clothes and belongings and can be a hazard for children who then come in contact with these items.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, lead — a heavy, malleable blue-grey metal — “was one of the first metals used by humans and consequently, the cause of the first recorded occupational disease (lead colic in a 4th century BC metal worker).”

Q: What are the symptoms of lead exposure? What should I do if someone in my family may have been exposed?

A: While lead poisoning can occur at any age, exposure is particularly dangerous for young children as it can impact their neurological development and have life-long effects on health and behavior. Although some people may not show any symptoms, lead can impact the central-nervous system. And, particularly in children, it can cause headaches, stomach issues, agitation or drowsiness, or — when severe — vomiting and convulsions, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

A blood test is needed to determine if someone has absorbed lead; sometimes the test can be done with a finger prick only; at other times, it requires drawing blood from a vein.

The New Jersey Department of Health notes that pediatricians and family doctors usually offer this test — or refer you to a lab that does — and insurance plans that cover more than 50 people are required to pay the full cost, without charging a deductible.

Families with smaller group health plans can visit their local Federally Qualified Health Center to arrange testing, for a fee to be determined by your household income. Those without insurance should contact their local health department, which can provide lead screening for free. University Hospital, in Newark, has also held free screenings, by appointment, on Saturdays for Newark residents impacted by the lead issue.

Tests that reveal a blood lead level of more than 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter —the new, tougher standard the state enacted last year — are flagged for a follow-up. When this happens, the doctor or personnel at a qualified health center should discuss the need for additional testing, provide information on reducing lead risks, and work with the local health department on next steps. These could include a home inspection to identify the source, remediation of some kind, or behavioral or medical interventions to address any symptoms.

Q: What else can I do to protect my family from lead exposure and its impact?

A: If you live in an old home, removing the source of the contamination is important — but remediating a place with lead paint is complicated, time-consuming and costly. Eradicating lead from water lines involves major construction or system-wide changes. Experts urge families with small children to keep windowsills, baseboards and play areas as clean as possible and free of lead paint dust, and address areas with peeling paint.

Parents and children in these homes should also wash their hands frequently; experts said there is no evidence to show that lead is absorbed through the skin, so washing and bathing in water that may have elevated levels of the substance does not increase the risk of exposure. Also, adults who work in industries that involve lead should change clothes when they come home. The state health department has created a public awareness campaign with a social media component, #kNOwLEAD, that includes posters in English, Spanish and Hindi on how to reduce these risks.

In addition, research suggests a healthy diet can also help reduce the impact of lead on the body. Foods rich in calcium, iron and vitamin C can prevent the toxin from being absorbed by the body, according to health care experts. Milk, cheese and leafy green vegetables are key sources of calcium; lean meats, beans and peanut butter are good options for iron; and vitamin C can be found in citrus, certain fruit juices, and red and green peppers. Some studies have shown that fast food and other higher-fat meals can make children absorb lead faster.

The state teamed up with the NJ Poison Center to establish a 24/7 hotline for residents with questions or concerns about lead exposure; calls are answered by trained doctors, nurses and pharmacists and assistance is available in 150 languages, according to the DOH. The service can provide callers with information on how to get their homes or water systems tested, where to get water filters or free bottled water, as well as the impacts of lead exposure. The phone number for the Health Hotline is 1-866-448-2432. 

Q: What if I want to get my home tested for lead, just to be sure?

A: There are plenty of private contractors who will test for lead and remove it, but experts urge residents to start with their local health department. Some municipalities have programs that provide free testing, or work with other towns or nonprofit organizations to offer these services.

For homeowners or property managers who do need to remediate lead-tainted properties, the state Department of Community Affairs maintains a list of certified companies and other resources on its website. Information for tenants, including their legal rights and responsibilities when it comes to lead hazards, can be found here. Self-testing kits, with swipes designed to detect the presence of lead, are also available at home construction stores, but experts encourage people to obtain professional help if possible.