Government and Health Care

Problems with lead extend beyond municipal water systems

It’s more common to find contamination from lead-based paint.

January 29, 2016
| By Pat Evans |
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The Flint water crisis has made the nation more aware of the dangers of lead.

With the media concentrating on the events in Flint, Michigan residents have turned their concerns about lead to their own communities, many of which have active lead programs, including the city of Grand Rapids.

Stu Yankee and his firm, Romulus-based Environmental Testing & Consulting, are helping the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in Flint, but also regularly conduct lead paint inspections for the city of Grand Rapids and in Muskegon County.

Prior to the Flint crisis, water was of little concern to Grand Rapidians, and rightly so, said Yankee, the ETC regional manager in West Michigan.

The Grand Rapids Water System serves the townships of Ada, Cascade, Grand Rapids and Tallmadge; the cities of Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Walker; and portions of Ottawa County.

Grand Rapids tests the city’s water yearly for lead and publishes a report, with results coming well under the 15 parts per billion considered safe. The most recent test was 2.2 ppb.

Although lead pipe use was discontinued in 1930, of Grand Rapids’ 80,000 service lines, approximately 17,000 are still lead pipes. Those pipes are replaced when a portion leaks, breaks or is exposed by construction projects, despite not being required, and the corrosion control treatment employed by the city provides a protective barrier throughout the water system.

Yankee reminisced about a time when the taste of the water would change as communities tried to figure out how to best treat it.

“Technology wasn’t really there to measure the very small amounts, so you had to put enough of something in there that you knew it was killing or reducing anything harmful,” Yankee said. “That’s why people like water filters because they can say, ‘I don’t like the way my water tastes,’ but you can’t really do anything about it.”

Yankee, who is not concerned about the quality of water in West Michigan, is concerned about the lead found in other parts of the house. ETC helps perform tests for the city of Grand Rapids, where the Get the Lead Out program assists home and property owners with removing lead hazards.

With many houses in West Michigan dating back prior to 1978 when the use of lead paint was phased out, the element is still present under layers of newer paint, inside and outside of the home, Yankee said.

When paint is intact on the wall, the lead is of little danger. The danger stems from when the paint starts to flake and crumble and become dust.

“Younger kids aren’t developed and are growing and highly sensitive,” he said. “Any amount of lead and contamination will impede their development. They could be crawling around … and then putting their hands in their mouths and ingesting it directly as a solid, rather than a microscopic part per billion in water.”

Cities often have programs that lend assistance when lower-income residents are looking to remediate lead issues in their homes. Yankee suggests every homeowner should check the paint at home — lead tests are available at hardware stores — especially when remodeling is going to take place.

“(People) don’t take the old paint off, (they) just paint over the old stuff,” he said, adding many older varnishes on wood floors also contain lead. “A nice solid, intact paint is just that — it’s OK. But when there’s a type of damage, it gets dangerous.”

The majority of lead issues occur in children, but Yankee said adults can have problems, too. He gave an example of a person scraping or sanding paint. The paint dust gets on the person’s hands and then is ingested when the person eats a sandwich, or it ends up on the ground and is walked through repeatedly.

Lead isn’t a major concern for public health most of the time, Yankee said, but it’s smart to be aware of when it might be — and that’s rarely related to water.

“You need to know where lead is in the house and where it isn’t, so you don’t create a lead dustbowl with a saw some day,” he said.

“The Flint water situation is an extremely unique circumstance.”

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