Lead, An Invisible Terror
By Thomas Jasen Gardner
“I knew I had to protect, love and care for my children, but I could not protect them from lead poisoning,“ said South Madison resident Mary Moore.
Her infant son and daughter contracted lead poisoning in 1992 and have suffered brain damage and continuing physical aliments from lead
By the end of 2011, Madison Water Utility will have replaced the city’s 6,000 lateral lead water service pipes with galvanized iron. In addition,
5,000 private property owners will have replaced their lead water lines with new piping. The Water Utility Board adopted the nearly $12 million
dollar project in 1999 with the authority of the City of Madison. “As of this point we have less than 200 curb to house replacements and less then 5
percent of water main to curb service lines to replace,” said Joe Grande, Madison Water Utility Water Manager.
There are 810 miles of water mains that laterally connect to mostly residential and municipal buildings and some small businesses. Over the next
40 years, the utility will have to replace 400 miles of water mains to maintain its obligation of providing safe water from the city’s xxx wells.
City water samples in 1997 exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency allowable limits and the Center for Disease Control limits for lead in
drinking water. The quality of Madison’s drinking water was cause for immediate “action”. In 1999, the EPA, City of Madison, and Wisconsin
Department of Natural Resources approved a plan to replace lead water service pipes in 10 years under the jurisdiction of the EPA Lead and
Copper Rule. Acting on behalf of the EPA, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has extended the lead replacement deadline to New
Years Day of 2012, according to Grande.
Lead in potable drinking water is responsible for upwards of 20 percent of all lead poisoning cases according to the CDC.
“Wisconsin’s children are being poisoned by lead in greater numbers than many other states,” said the 2008 Wisconsin State Report on Childhood
Lead Poisoning. The body’s absorption of lead with water can be as high as 50 percent.
The most frequently used metal in home plumbing systems and public water main lateral pipelines since 1926 was lead. Poisoning from lead often
occurs with no obvious pinpointed symptoms and may go unrecognized without professional medical tracking. Most of the dysfunctions produced
by the absorption of lead are due to lead's ability to mimic and inhibit the actions of calcium. In humans the lead is directly absorbed, distributed,
and excreted. Once in the bloodstream lead is distributed throughout the body. Blood and soft tissue such as kidneys, bone marrow, liver, and
brain tissue, and mineralized tissue such as bones and teeth easily absorb and retain lead.
Once lead enters the body it interferes with normal cell function and physiological processes. Some of the physiological effects of lead include
harm done to the peripheral and central nervous system, blood cells, metabolism of vitamin D and calcium, and reproduction.
The nervous system seems to be the most sensitive to lead poisoning. Low levels of lead exposure have been proven to reduce cognitive
intelligence in a mother’s fetus, infants and young children. The harmful effects on mental development in young children include a reduction in
attention span and learning skills. Lead poisoning is responsible for a lower I.Q. and a host of additional problems that include learning
disabilities, attention deficit disorder, seizures and even death.
Adults exposed to lead poisoning also typically experience kidney problems and high blood pressure. Socially aggressive behavior, juvenile
delinquency and adult violent crime may also be symptomatic of lead poisoning. “These are identified as outcomes that have correlated lead with
negative behavior, “ said John Hausbeck, Environmental Health Supervisor for PHMDC.
“Madison must minimize the lead level in tap water in order to meet mandated federal water quality standards,” according to the Madison Water
Utility Lead Replacement Program pamphlet. The EPA’s 2009 Safe Drinking Water Act was allocated $2 billion to help finance the 1997 EPA Lead
and Copper Rule that reduces lead concentrations in the nations drinking water to 5 parts per billion. The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing
and Urban Affairs estimates that the costs of national lead abatement maybe as high as $206 billion. The Center for Disease Control estimates the
social costs of lead poisoning are much higher.
The precautionary information to protect children from the risk of lead exposure came to late for Moore, a neighborhood dental assistant. Moore
missed many workdays to escort her children to doctors and to help them maintain education goals despite learning disabilities from lead
“Adults on a low income and especially minority children continue to be at the greatest risk of lead exposure,” said Daphne Daniels, Lead Toxicity
Outreach Specialist for UW Medical Foundation.
“My children came this close to dying from lead exposure,” said Moore as she displayed a small gap between her left thumb and index finger.
When the blood tests came back positive from lead exposure, “The doctor said to take the children to the hospital immediately,” she added. The
amount of medical screening for lead is still well below the amount needed to identify lead-poisoned children in high-risk populations stated a City
of Madison, Department of Public Health Report Card.
Lead enters drinking water primarily as a result of the corrosion, or wearing away of pipe metals. Lead has traditionally been used in the public
water distribution system, businesses, factories, and household plumbing. These materials include lead-based solder used to join copper pipe,
brass and chrome plated brass faucets, and in some cases, pipes made of lead that connect water faucets to the water main lateral pipes.
“Even after you remove lead pipes, there are still potential sources for lead,” Grande said. Lead particles and dissolved lead gets trapped in the
bends and twists of home water fixtures. Grande added that the utility has no authority to change pipes in private homes or businesses but
recommends changing all internal plumbing. Health officials suggest replacing all metal internal plumbing with rigid plastic pipe.
Homes built before 1950 are highly susceptible of being heavily laced with lead paint and plumbing. Disturbing the metal pipe contributes to lead
leeching into many water taps in buildings and homes built before 1950. Nearly 80 percent of Madison homes were built prior to 1950 according to
the 2000 Census report.
Homes built after the 1986 Safe Drinking Water Amendments have “lead-free” plumbing that may still contain up to 8 percent of lead.
Grande also warns that lead in outdated household plumbing is severely affected by inorganic and organic chemicals. “Lead actually bonds to iron
and manganese,” he added. Manganese is a natural component of the city’s groundwater aquifer. According to the Public Health of Madison and
Dane County website, the silver colored mineral can be harmful if consumed in excess of a normal diet. Recent evidence links excess manganese
to Parkinson’s syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and the ability to learn and remember.
The concentration of lead in the brain is increased by 3-fold when manganese interacts with lead in the body, according to a 2004 chemical profile
by the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services. In addition, this combination affects the body’s natural chemicals that deliver messages
within the brain. “The most significant neurochemical effect of the manganese-lead combination was a continuing decrease in norepinephrine
brain activity as lead-manganese levels are increased,” cited the report.
Another chemical that increases lead exposure is the disinfectant chloramine. When it chemically interacts with lead, human blood lead levels will
increase from the drinking water. “Research has suggested that disinfection with chloramine may result in higher lead levels,” Grande concurred
in his e-mail.
According to the non-profit Environmental Working Group, the more scientists study lead, the more they find subtle but noticeable neurological
damage to the brain at lower and lower levels of exposure. A congress of scientists believes that brain damage from lead is permanent.
Lead is a heavy, soft, toxic, gray-blue metal that has no known physiologically relevant role in the body. The EPA eventually wants a lead level of
zero in potable drinking water under perfect conditions. New guidelines allow 5 parts per billion in the water distribution system and 10 parts per
billion at the water tap. But because of extenuating circumstances regarding the cost of prevention or unforeseen circumstances, 15 parts per
billion is the Maximum Containment Level allowed. There is also evidence that harmful lead toxicity occurs well below the levels acknowledged
as relevant by the EPA.
Toxicologists continue the debate about urine testing for lead as a better detective then blood testing, Wisconsin surveys lead toxicity with blood
samples. Hair has been used as the test of choice by the Environmental Protection Agency in determining toxic metal exposure. A 1980 report
released by the E.P.A stated that human hair should be the preferred method for biological monitoring of toxic metals. This report confirmed the
findings of other studies, which concluded that hair might be a more appropriate tissue for studying community exposure to toxic metals than blood
or urine analysis.
Removal of any type of lead is important. Do not purchase canned foods sealed with solder, or acidic foods stored in lead based containers. Check
to see if lead water pipes are being used in your home or work. When lead water pipes are present, filter the water, or change to bottled water if
your employer does not recognize your health concerns about Madison water. Do not eat foods grown or animals raised near highways or
factories. Do not play next to heavily traveled roads or buildings being remodeled. To decrease airborne concentrations of lead accumulating inside
well-insulated building, open the windows.
Toxic lead is recognized as the most hazardous of all the toxic metals. Newborns,, infants, children, the elderly, ill people, ethnic groups and
pregnant women are the most vulnerable to the absorption and retention of lead. Since even low levels of lead can affect the fetus and contribute
to learning disorders, behavioral disorders, emotional and physical health problems, routine screening of children and adults is recommended by
the Wisconsin Department of Health.
“If he could be gainfully employed, despite his difficulties, life would be much better for him,” Moore said about her 21-year-old son.