Iowa residents can improve their drinking water and support environmental research by participating in the University of Iowa’s “Get the Lead Out” initiative through Oct. 26.
The program offers free lead testing kits to Iowa residents outside of Johnson County. The UI Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering; and Center for Health Effects and Environmental Contamination are leading the initiative to collect information for a new database of lead levels in drinking water across Iowa.
Because lead, especially toxic to children, was once used commonly in household products, it may still be present in aging household plumbing across the state.
Interested households can email firstname.lastname@example.org to request and receive three bottles (and instructions) for collecting tap water samples. After sending samples back to the university for testing, they will receive their results, an explanation and suggestions for improvement (such as adding a filter to the faucet).
More than 6,000 Iowans have been exposed to drinking water with levels of lead that exceed the 15 parts per billion the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers safe.
Following the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan this year, EPA began to investigate how states are monitoring and testing for lead in drinking water. According to a report by USA today, an estimated 4 million people live in communities were testing was performed improperly or skipped all together.
Per federal regulation, utilities with more than 50,000 customers must continually take measures to protect against pipe corrosion, which can cause to lead contamination. In contrast, communities with less than 50,000 people can stop protecting against contamination as soon as levels drop below the federal limit. Data from Iowa Department of Natural Resources show that 13 rural water systems in the state exceeded federal limits in the last six months. An additional five utilities failed to test for lead at all over this period of time.
The EPA requires communities with less than 50,000 people to perform 20 lead tests per water system twice per year. If those tests come back normal, the utility is allowed to test much less frequently: 10 tests at 10 separate locations every three years. Some towns with less than 3,000 residents can qualify to test every nine years. Lead contamination in drinking water can cause lowered IQ, irreversible brain damage, behavioral problems and language acquisition delays, particularly for children. According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, there have been no reported instances of children with elevated lead levels in their blood in the most recent 20 years.
Richard Valentine, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of Iowa, said, “I don’t think the regulation is adequate.” Valentine continued, “It’s like saying, ‘It’s OK if only 10 percent of your airplanes crash; you’ve got good safety.’ If you’ve got one failure, you’ve got one hundred (more). You’ve got to find out why, where and sample a whole bunch more times and do something about it.”
The town of Kalona was on the reduced-testing plan prior to lead tests performed in the community this September. Two of the ten private homes tested in the town had drinking water with lead levels that were three times higher than the EPA’s 15 parts per billion limit. Kalona must now double the number of lead tests performed on drinking water. Lead levels also exceeded federal limits in Council Bluffs, Shueyville, Churdan, Blue Grass and Livermore.
The EPA announced late last month that it will be reconsidering its lead regulations. Mary Mindrup is head of the EPA’s Region 7 drinking water management branch, which serves Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri.
Mindrup said, “The EPA has always been concerned about smaller systems just because the economics are different…than larger systems.” She continued, “But we want to ensure that regardless of the size of system, everybody is receiving water that is safe to drink.”
Mindrup said that the EPA will focus on improving lead management for small rural communities and increasing water infrastructure funding.
Researchers at Tulane University in New Orleans are studying songs sung by mockingbirds to determine the effects of lead levels in the environment.
Dr. Renata Ribeiro – an adjunct professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology – has been studying the Northern Mockingbird. As the name implies, these birds often imitate the songs sang by other birds as well as car alarms, emergency sirens, and other sounds. The singing ability of male mockingbirds is crucial to finding a mate.
Ribeiro and other researchers are studying how the Northern Mockingbird and its songs are affected by lead pollution which contaminates much of the soil in The Big Easy. A 2011 study by Tulane University found that nearly two-thirds of New Orleans homes and yards contain “dangerous” levels of lead. Researchers attributed the high levels of lead to the demolition and renovation of houses after Hurricane Katrina as well as the large number of homes constructed before lead was banned from house paint in 1978. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has also reported air quality concerns in the state’s biggest city. Exposure to unsafe levels of lead and other environmental pollution has been tied to learning disabilities in children as well as neurological damage in animals.
Ribeiro’s efforts are part of a one-year study sponsored by the Morris Animal Foundation. She and her team will return to the field next month as the birds become more active again in preparation for mating season.
Scientists have recently discovered new potential for a material known as perovskite solar cells which can be harvested using lead from old car batteries. These cells have shown 19 percent efficiency in converting the sun’s energy into usable electricity and the lead from just one car battery can produce enough solar panels to power 30 homes.
Not only is this new method creating renewable energy but it also serves as a way to recycle lead which can have detrimental effects on entire ecosystems without proper disposal. Lead can also be recycled from an old solar panel and be used to create a new one. The report added that “photovoltaic performance of the PSCs (perovskite solar cells) synthesized by each route is the same, which demonstrates that device quality does not suffer from the materials sourced from spent car batteries. ”
Currently about 90 percent of the lead extracted from old batteries is used to create new batteries but an estimated 200 million lead-acid batteries are expected to be retired in coming years as the more efficient lithium-ion batteries are likely to take over the market.
Officials in the Upper Mississippi River U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge will meet today in Prairie du Chien, Wis., to discuss recent findings which link dying bald eagles and lead ammunition.
Beginning in 2011, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists Ed Britton, Sarah Warner, Mike Coffey and Drew Becker collected dead bald eagles from Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin. After testing the livers of 168 dead birds, they found that 48 percent came back with detectable lead concentrations. 21 percent had lethal amounts of lead, indicating lead poisoning.
The lead most likely came from the carcasses of wild game left behind by hunters using lead ammunition. According to a fact sheet by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, eagles frequently scavenge deer and pheasant carcasses, many of which contain lead fragments left behind by hunters who cleaned the carcasses on-site and left behind gut piles which may contain lead fragments. High amounts of lead can be lethal, and non-lethal exposure can cause vision and respiratory problems, leading to secondary trauma.
Lead is currently the most popular material used in shotgun ammunition because it is dense, inexpensive, readily available and soft enough not to damage vintage gun barrels, a common problem with steel ammunition. Fortunately, companies in the hunting and shooting industry have already created several non-toxic alternatives, including Tungsten-Matrix, which has nearly the same density and softness as lead, key factors hunters look for when choosing ammunition.
The meeting today in Prairie du Chien is part of a series of information sessions being held in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Quad Cities over the course of two weeks. For more information on these meetings and the effects of lead on bald eagles, visit the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Many environmental advocates oppose the rule’s nullification, and argue that lead shot can harm the environment by poisoning animals that inadvertently ingest the pellets.
“Lead has proven to be harmful,” said Rep. Anesa Kajtazovic, D-Waterloo. “ I have done much research on this, and the most surprising feedback I’ve had from my constituents has been from those who do hunt who say, ‘You know, lead is not necessary.’ They are concerned about the impact that it will have on the wildlife and what kind of a planet it will leave for their kids and grandkids.”
The EPA announced that most areas around the nation are meeting air quality standards for lead. Unfortunately, Iowa’s Pottawattamie County was one of the few areas not to meet these standards.
Overall, 11 states and Puerto Rico had at least one area that exceeded the EPA’s limit.
The lead standards were strengthened ten-fold in 2008.
The EPA’s news release reports that the areas failing to meet the lead standards are obligated to enact changes:
Areas designated as not meeting the standards will need to develop plans within 18 months and implement them within five years to reduce pollution to meet the lead standards. No areas in Indian Country are being designated nonattainment.
Lead emitted into the air can be inhaled or can be ingested after it settles. Ingestion is the main route of human exposure. Children are the most susceptible because they are more likely to ingest lead, and their bodies are developing rapidly. There is no known safe level of lead in the body.