By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director
The unfolding tragedy of lead in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water has riveted the world’s attention on the issue, and even as I write this last Friday, the story continues to evolve, as hundreds of Michiganders were then marching on the statehouse demanding that Governor Rick Snyder resign.
And it makes all of us think twice before we turn on our own taps.
So imagine my surprise when Inquirer reporter Sam Wood published a story two weeks ago that 18 cities in Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, and Norristown, have a higher percentage of children with dangerously elevated levels of lead in their blood than Flint. And within Philadelphia, Roxborough-Manayunk was especially high, higher than, say, neighboring Mt. Airy or Germantown.
While no level of lead in our bloodstream is safe, since lead is a dangerous toxin that causes developmental delays, learning difficulties, IQ loss, and more, the Centers for Disease Control uses 5 micrograms per deciliter as its yardstick for identifying elevated blood lead levels.
In Flint, 3% of kids tested had levels above this mark after the state shifted the city’s water supply to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure. But in Philadelphia, says a state report released in 2014, 10.2% of children tested were above this mark. That’s three times more than Flint’s rate.
And nearby Norristown? 11.8%. Even worse.
The issue here is not necessarily drinking water. Rather, say the experts, it’s lead in older homes painted prior to 1978 when lead was a paint additive. So in older homes where the paint is chipping and flaking, lead becomes a part of the homes’ dust. Children pick up lead on their hands as they crawl across the floor, and while sucking a finger or eating food, they ingest the toxin—and even a few chips can make a significant impact. Though the number of confirmed lead exposure cases in Pennsylvania has decreased by almost half in children under the age of 7 since 2007, we have a long way to go.
Complicating matters, while the city’s water mains deliver treated drinking water from the Schuylkill River to our homes with no lead, pipes leading from those mains into your home may themselves contain lead—so lead might enter your system from your own home’s pipes. While lead was removed from new pipes starting in the 80s, lead and lead solder persists in old ones.
So if your old home has pre-1978 paint and pre-1980s piping, you might consider having your blood tested.
Joanne Dahme, Roxborough resident and the General Manager for Public Affairs at Philadelphia Water, noted another key difference between Philadelphia and Flint. “Water leaches lead out of pipes, and Flint didn’t have the right corrosion control measures in place. But Philadelphia does. We add a chemical that puts a coating inside pipes so lead does not leach out.”
She recommends that worried residents flush their water’s pipes first thing in the morning, when water has been sitting in pipes overnight. Do filters get out the lead? “Some,” she said, “but we don’t necessarily recommend filters.” Like me, she was surprised that Roxborough-Manayunk had elevated levels of lead above neighboring communities, as the housing stock surrounding Roxborough seems of similar vintage.
Philadelphia Water is required by the state to test every three years, she notes, and the department sends out 8,000 letters recruiting volunteers for those tests. Sadly, volunteers don’t readily come forward. In the last round, 134 homes were tested, well above the 50 homes required by the state, but fewer than some health advocates wish.
Have Philly Water’s phones been ringing off the hook since the Flint news? “Surprisingly, not a whole lot,” she reports. But “educating yourself” remains Dahme’s best advice, and going to Philadelphia Water’s web site (www.phila.gov/water) is also key. Look for the “What’s New” section on the home page, and click on “Concerned About Lead?” Like to have your home in the next round of testing? Call 215-685-6300 to sign up.
Newly elected City Council member Helen Gym has scheduled hearings on lead in our city’s water on March 21. How often Philadelphia tests, what those results are, and how people like you can better protect yourself from the dangers of lead in drinking water—and in your blood—are all topics likely to be covered.
That Roxborough residents show a spike in blood lead levels should be hugely worrisome for our community—let’s make sure Roxborough is in the room at Gym’s hearings. Until then, take the measures Dahme and others recommend.
This essay was originally published in the Natural Selections Column of the Roxborough Review on February 26, 2016.