Posted: May 6, 2016

Lead poisoning is irreversible. The folks in Flint, Michigan, who recently have been exposed through their contaminated drinking water supply, will deal with the consequences--developmental delays, learning disabilities, memory loss, mood disorders, and more--for the rest of their lives.

According to Bryan Swistock, senior extension associate, Pennsylvanians, especially those with older homes that rely on individual wells, springs, and cisterns (known as private drinking water supplies), are also at risk. "Lead has long been considered a serious health issue in Pennsylvania's private drinking water supplies because of the prevalence of corrosive water and older homes in the state," he says. "Corrosive water aggressively dissolves any metal in the plumbing system. Our research has consistently found that about 60 percent of the private water supplies across the state have corrosive water that could corrode household plumbing, but only about 1 percent of these water supplies have treatment systems to reduce corrosive water."

Swistock and his colleagues have investigated lead contamination in Pennsylvania's drinking water supplies since 1988. Their studies reveal that lead occurs in quantities above the standard for drinking water in 10 to 20 percent of the water supplies they tested. "Most importantly, we found that none of the homeowners with high lead levels were aware of the issue before we tested their water," Swistock says.

Swistock adds that people who have metal plumbing systems that were installed prior to the early 1990s and also have a corrosive water supply are most at risk for lead poisoning. Homes using public water supplies are generally at lower risk than those using private wells, springs, or cisterns because public water supplies are routinely monitored for lead, and corrosion control chemicals are used in communities where corrosive water occurs.

Other symptoms of a higher risk of lead in water, he adds, include blue-green stains in sinks and tubs (caused by copper corrosion), pin-hole leaks in metal plumbing, or a metallic taste to water that is most noticeable when you first run water from the faucet.

To find out if you have lead in your water, arrange to have an accurate water test completed by a state-accredited laboratory, Swistock says. Such testing usually costs about $25.

Learn more about the Agricultural Analytical Services Lab's water testing program.

--Sara LaJeunesse