Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: Ever since the news about lead in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, I've wondered about the water in my own home. I live in Oklahoma, and our house was built in 1988. Should I be worried?

Dear Reader: You've asked a timely question that, unfortunately, has a complex answer. Let's start with why the presence of lead in our environment -- whether in the water, air or soil, or in the products we use or come into contact with -- is of grave concern.

Lead is a highly toxic metal that has a detrimental effect on virtually every system in the human body. Children, with their developing brains and nervous systems, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead. The amount of lead that an adult can tolerate with minimum ill effect can cause significant damage to a child. The challenge is that until it becomes acute, lead poisoning virtually has no symptoms.

Lead causes anemia, hypertension and damages the kidneys and the reproductive system. Even low blood levels of lead affect the development of the brain and nervous system. In children it can result in lower IQ, hearing problems and behavioral changes like reduced attention span. The neurological damage caused by lead is believed to be irreversible.

Exposure to lead is bio-accumulative. That means the lead you ingest stays in the body and, as exposure continues, blood levels increase. And although the health crisis in Flint has put the spotlight on lead in water, the presence of lead-based paint in older homes poses the most common risk. It's a topic we've addressed in a previous column.

As for your situation, there is some good news. In 1986, two years before your home was built, the Safe Drinking Water Act significantly reduced the amount of lead permitted for use in plumbing fixtures, including pipes and solder. However, it wasn't until 2014 that the most stringent regulations regarding the use of lead in water delivery systems went into effect.

You will also want to find out whether your water supplier is in compliance with federal lead contamination regulations. Federal law requires regular testing for contaminants. The results are published in a document called the Consumer Confidence Report. Ask for a copy. Should you wish to test your own water, the Environmental Protection Agency has a list of certified labs on its website. Most home improvement stores also sell water-testing kits.

If you believe your water supply is contaminated with lead, the EPA suggests the following:

-- Flush your pipes for 30 seconds to two minutes before using water for drinking or cooking.

-- Use only cold water for drinking or cooking. Hot water may contain higher levels of lead.

-- According to the EPA, it is safe to bathe or shower in water that contains lead, as it is not absorbed through the skin.

-- Consider installing a water filtration device that is certified to remove lead.

We recommend a visit to www.epa.gov, where you'll find a wealth of information and resources.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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