Clean water is fundamental to our health; it helps us stay both hydrated and clean. Access to high-quality water is imperative for our overall well-being, yet many of us unknowingly receive water from lead-contaminated pipes. This makes the Flint water crisis far from an isolated event — lack of access to pure water has become a national concern.

Flint Water Crisis

Americans have been horrified at the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where residents received their water supply from the toxic Flint River until October 2015. Previously, Flint residents got their fresh drinking water from Lake Huron, but they were asked to resort to the Flint River while the city worked on building its own pipeline to connect to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). One pitfall? City officials did not immediately treat the Flint River water to ensure it didn't cause corrosion in pipes.

The Health Effects of Lead

Federal law requires that water systems which are sent through lead pipes must contain an additive that seals the lead into the pipe, which prevents it from leaching into the water, but this was not done. Young children, infants, and fetuses are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead in drinking water because the physical and behavioral effects of lead occur at lower exposure levels in children than adults. Low levels of lead in children have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In June, a study released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found more than 18 million Americans possibly received water from lead-contaminated pipes in 2015. Over 5,000 community water systems were in violation of the Lead and Copper Rule, a federal requirement for monitoring of lead and copper levels in water. Moreover, about 1,100 water systems exceeded the action level for lead (15 parts per billion in at least 10 percent of homes tested). These systems served nearly 4 million people, collectively.

Washing fork in sink There's more than lead lurking in water; here's how to test if your drinking water is safe. Photo courtesy of Pexels, Public Domain

More Than Lead In Water

Meanwhile in September, a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWP) found lead isn't the only danger lurking in our tap water; there are alarming levels of chromium-6 (the carcinogenic "Erin Brockovich" chemical) in drinking water supplies that about 200 million Americans across the country drink. Animal studies have found drinking water with chromium-6, or hexavalent chromium, can cause cancer. This led scientists at the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to conclude that ingesting even tiny amounts of chromium-6 can cause cancer in people, a conclusion affirmed by state scientists in New Jersey and North Carolina.

Testing The Waters

The Flint water crisis, and several studies highlighting the contaminants in our drinking water, has Americans asking: “How do we know if our water is safe?”

Method #1

One way to determine if your drinking water is safe is to contact the city water department. Here, you can request a copy of their Consumer Confidence Report, which includes a list of contaminant levels. Suppliers are required by federal law to run these tests on a regular basis. You can find your municipal water supplier by visiting the EPA’s website listing and entering your zip code; some suppliers don’t list their findings. If you see your water contains a lead level at or above 12 parts per billion, contact your water supplier and ask if the service pipe on the street contains lead.

If the service pipes do not contain lead, it’s probable lead exposure is coming from the pipes and plumbing within a home. The best way to check the safety of your home’s tap water is to ask your water supplier if they will come and test it. You can contact the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791 for other options if they are unable to do so.

Method #2

You can also go to a local home improvement store and buy a lead testing kit. You will have to collect samples of your water, based on the instructions in your kit, and then send the samples into a lab for analysis. The EPA suggests using a state-certified lab for the most reliable results. In the meantime, you can use reverse osmosis, filter systems, or distillation to block lead while you wait for your test results.