The water crisis happening in Flint, Michigan, is very scary. And if you’ve read about it, odds are the question “Could there be lead in my water, too?” has crossed your mind. The answer: possibly.
The U.S. has some of the safest water on the planet, but it’s not perfect. One of the biggest studies in recent years, by the Environmental Working Group, detected over 300 contaminants in our nation’s drinking supply. And unsafe levels of lead (a chemical linked to brain damage and mood disorders, among a slew of other issues) has been found in loads of other cities in past years, like Washington D.C., Durham, North Carolina, and Sebring, Ohio, to name a few. Older homes and cities (like Chicago, where 80 percent of homes get their water supply from lead pipes) are more at risk, and water suppliers throw corrosion-fighting chemicals into the aqua to make it safe to drink.
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Unfortunately, research shows that disruptions in those service lines—say there’s construction or a pipe needs to be replaced—can mess with the protective coating that keeps lead out of the water. So while most water is safe, lead is a real concern for some. And According to a new report from USA Today, hundreds of elementary schools across the nation have drinking water with excess levels of lead. Through its investigation, USA Today also found that state agencies often don't properly test the water or notify parents of contimated water.
Here’s a quick 101 on how to protect yourself:
1. Track Down a Water Report
You should receive a Consumer Confidence Report a.k.a. CCR annually from your water supplier (find out who your supplier is at epa.gov), which will contain info about contaminant risks, including lead. (You can also request one if it hasn’t come—it’s the law they give it to you.) So you know what you’re reading: Lead is measured in water in terms of parts per billion (ppb). If lead levels are higher than 15 ppb, the EPA says your water system needs to take action to lower them by replacing pipes or adding anti-corrosive elements to the water. But those rules appear to be outdated—more recent research says even as little as five ppb could be dangerous to your health.
2. Buy a Home-Testing Kit
There are easy tests (usually a strip of paper) that can detect levels of lead, along with chlorine, nitrates, and other nasties in your tap. Check out Watersafe’s City Water Test Kit ($20, discovertesting.com). You can also have your water tested by your utility company, usually for a small fee.
3. Filter Your Aqua
Don’t worry—you don’t have to fill the Brita pitcher six times a day to keep up with healthy water habits. There are filters that attach to the kitchen tap—like the Brita On Tap White Faucet Mount Filtration System ($30, bedbathandbeyond.com)—or even the showerhead, so you can easily avoid brushing your teeth, cooking, or showering with contaminated water.
4. Run That Tap
If you do detect lead, the safest thing to do is stick to bottled or filtered water until you can eliminate the source. (Lead could be coming from the pipes in your street or the pipes and fixtures in your own home.) In the meantime, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says running the tap on cold for a few minutes (especially after it’s been sitting overnight) can help eliminate some of the lead. (Hot water actually encourages the water’s absorption of lead from the pipes, so you can’t boil it away.)