How to Mitigate Lead Contamination in Our Water 

Given recent reports of high lead levels at some of Newton’s outdoor water fountains and at several Newton public schools, it is timely to review the sources of lead in drinking water and to find local solutions to this nationwide problem.

Lead in drinking water usually results from the use, many years ago, of lead pipe or lead-based solder or joints in water systems; over time, the lead leaches into the water, especially in acidic environments. Although the MWRA has reportedly kept our local water at an alkaline pH of 9 or above, the lead levels in the main line and several water fountains at Burr Elementary, the water fountains and sinks at several other schools as well as public outdoor drinking fountains, including ones at the Gath pool and Crystal Lake, were found to be above the actionable level of 15ppb.

While supplying schools and public areas with bottled water is a reasonable stopgap solution, “plastic water” has its drawbacks.  First, bottled water may expose schoolchildren to lead levels higher than the average school water fountain: the regulatory limit on lead in bottled water is 5ppb while that of the average school water fountain in Newton was several times lower.  Second, water in Newton comes from the Quabbin Reservoir, which produces some of the highest quality drinking water in the nation.

The best response to the current situation, as outlined by Newton School Superintendent David Fleishman, is to replace the main line and plumbing at the Burr School with copper pipes. We strongly support updating the plumbing of our public outdoor drinking fountains and the other public schools where lead contamination has been found.

If you have old plumbing in your house and are concerned about lead in your water, Newton City Hall supplies testing kits and will process them for a fee ($40 per sample). If lead is checked first thing in the morning (“first draw”), and again after running the water for 1-2 minutes (flush sample”), you can determine if the lead is cleared from the line.

If test results show a level higher than 15 ppb for a “first draw” sample, running the water until it is cold before using it easily lowers the lead level; using cold tap water for drinking and cooking is preferable to hot, as more lead leaches out at high temperatures. Actionable lead levels from a “flush” sample requires identifying and removing the lead source. Check household plumbing for lead-based pipes or solder and use only lead-free materials in all plumbing repairs or new faucets and pipes.

Children and developing fetuses are most susceptible to the effects of lead, which can include lowered IQ, impaired executive function, attention and memory deficits and aggression. Encouraging kids to eat foods high in calcium, iron and vitamin C may be beneficial by decreasing lead absorption. A screening blood lead level is recommended for children younger than 36 months. Pregnant women and parents of children with significant lead exposures should discuss with their physicians the need for blood lead testing.  According the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website, “Most children with high lead levels in their blood have no symptoms. Your child’s healthcare provider can recommend treatment if your child has been exposed to lead.”

It is important to emphasize that in general, children are at greater risk of ingesting or inhaling lead through contact with peeling paint, dust, and soil than through water or food. Dr. Alan Woolf, Director of the Environmental Medicine Program at Children’s Hospital, stresses that lead paint in the home environment is still the most common source of lead poisoning in children. You can check your soil lead levels through the UMass extension at 413-545-2311 or email at soiltest@umass.edu.

That said, Green Newton joins others in supporting Newton Schools and city government in addressing the lead issue in school drinking water; we welcome continued transparent reporting of levels in a public forum. We also endorse not supplying bottled water when necessary repairs can better address a problem, since our local water has the lowest cost, the lowest carbon footprint and best quality.

Dr. Brita Lundberg
Green Newton Board member