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Lead Danger from Water Pipes

June 9, 2017 (Updated: August 3, 2021)
Lily Moran

Until recently, it seemed lead was a problem from another age. Like smallpox and syphilis, the danger of lead felt far away—perhaps present somewhere in the world, but not here in the United States. Flint, Michigan changed all that. By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the story—how Flint’s municipal plumbing pipes were corroded by acidic water, and started releasing lead into the city’s drinking water. Turns out, under our very feet, the nation’s aging pipes are lead time bombs! Few people realize just how dangerous lead is, and that’s a big problem. Luckily, there’s a fairly easy solution—it just demands vigilance. And, trust me, it’s worth being vigilant.

The Dangers of Lead

Flint, Michigan isn’t alone.

Countless cities still have the same pipes that Flint does. All told, it’s estimated that around 10 million homes are serviced by pipes with some lead content.

And 4 million children live in homes with high lead exposure.

Considering there is no safe level of exposure—any amount of lead is dangerous—that’s a sobering number.

Children are especially susceptible to lead poisoning. You see—while most lead passes through your body without interacting with anything—around 20% sticks around.

First, it goes into your blood, where it has a half-life of about one month. From there, it can go into soft tissue and hang around for about as long as it stays in blood. But once it gets into your bones and teeth, it can last decades. Its half-life in bone is up to 30 years.

That means, it takes up to 30 years for lead levels, in your bones, to be reduced by half.

The amount of lead that passes from your blood to your organs and bones is dependent on how your body is using blood at the time. For instance, if you are healing from a broken bone, the lead in your blood will primarily go into that bone.

If your entire body is growing new bone, though—as it does in childhood—lead can get into the entire musculoskeletal structure pretty quickly.

The danger is that lead is a potent neurotoxin—meaning it attacks your brain and nervous system.

It’s bad enough when that happens to a full grown adult. But when lead is interfering with the formation of the central nervous system—like in children who are still developing—it can permanently damage their neurological system.

Let me be perfectly clear—lead does the most damage to children, but it can and does do permanent damage to anyone.

In fact, since it travels in blood, lead poisoning can affect nearly every system in your body. It can cause kidney or liver damage, it can damage reproductive organs, and of course, it wreaks havoc in all your neurological systems.

And it does it silently.

For A Heavy Element, Lead Has A Quiet Footfall

One of the scariest things about lead poisoning is how long it can occur, without anyone having any idea.

Lead poisoning, to start, is almost entirely symptom-free. Only when the levels of lead in the body get very high, do you start to notice any problems.

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And those problems can be massive. Everything from learning disabilities or developmental challenges in children, to problems with speech or hearing, to headaches, abdominal bleeding, infertility, high blood pressure, joint and muscle pain, problems with memory—if you can imagine something unpleasant, there’s a good chance lead poisoning can cause it.

Lead poisoning can even lead to seizures.

But, again, by the time you’re experiencing these negative symptoms, you’ve probably already been exposed to lead for a long time. It takes awhile for lead to build up in your body to a high enough concentration that it causes truly massive side effects.

Which means, you could be exposed to lead for years, and not know about it—until it’s too late.

How To Guard Against Lead Poisoning

Since lead is so sneaky, it pays to be proactive.

That means testing your surroundings for lead. Many companies, like Costco, are happy to test your water, often for free.

They do it because they want to sell you filtration systems if they detect lead. But, if you have lead, you’ll want a water filtration system anyway. Get the test done for free.

When you bought your house, if it was built in the 1970s or earlier, chances are you had to have it tested for lead paint. But, if you don’t know if you’ve got lead paint, there are tests available at hardware stores for around $10.

It’s worth it to find out if you’ve got lead paint in your house—especially if any is chipping or starting to come off the walls. Lead paint is generally safe on the walls—it’s when it enters the air that you’ve got problems.

Finally, you’ll want to test yourself as well. Your doctor can check your blood for lead using simple blood tests. Just add it to your screening during your physical—especially when you start spending a lot of time in a new environment.

If you find you have a problem with lead, it’s not hard to fix it.

You can either get rid of, or paint over, problematic lead paint.

You can get water filters that are certified to reduce lead in your tap—and not all of them have to be expensive water filtration systems. Note, though, that most water filters get rid of some, but not all, lead. So this should really just be a stopgap until you can change the source of the problem.

And if you find that you’ve got lead in your blood, your doctor should use a chelation treatment to remove it. Chelation introduces chemicals into your blood that bond to lead, which are then passed out of your body. In most cases, oral chelation is fine—though in cases of extremely high lead exposure, IV chelation may be warranted.

But the most important way to prevent lead poisoning is to prevent it from getting into your body in the first place. Remember, no amount of lead is considered safe.

And, as Flint taught us, there’s more lead around us than we usually think. Stay vigilant, test your water and living area regularly, and respond to any presence of lead aggressively.


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