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8 Ways to Protect Yourself From Lead-Contaminated Water

Health + Wellness
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By Courtney Lindwall

Health experts agree that there is no safe level of exposure to lead. Often making its way into our drinking water supply after leaching from old pipes, the heavy metal can cause serious and irreversible damage to the body—affecting the nervous system, fertility and cognitive ability, among other functions.


Through the Safe Drinking Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires all community water systems to prepare and deliver an annual water quality report and to take action in the event of lead contamination. Yet some municipalities continue to flout their obligations. A 2016 NRDC analysis indicated that more than 18 million people were being served by 5,363 community water systems that violated the Lead and Copper Rule—and some counties never even reported the troubling data.

Currently, lead levels in the drinking water of Newark, New Jersey, are among the highest of any large water system in the U.S. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Newark Education Workers Caucus (NEW Caucus), an association of educators who teach in Newark's public schools, are applying pressure on the city, as well as city and state officials, to restore a safe drinking water supply. But until sufficient action is taken to comply with Safe Drinking Water Act standards, residents there (and anyplace where lead is an issue) should take these steps to minimize their exposure.

1. Get Your Tap Water Tested for Lead

If you live in Newark, you can request a free test from the city's water department (call 973-733-6303 or email waterandsewer@ci.newark.nj.us); many other cities also offer this service to the public. If you'd prefer independent testing, you can get it done by Healthy Babies Bright Futures, which lets you pay what you can afford for the test, or check the EPA website to find a certified lab that can perform the testing. Be sure that the lab you choose asks that you collect multiple samples of your tap water.

When collecting samples from a tap for testing, it's important that you avoid turning on the water in your home for at least six hours prior to sampling. There may be varying instructions from your city or lab on how to collect the samples, but collecting this "pre-flush" sample is a must.

2. At the Sink, Let It Run

Flush faucets by running water for a minimum of five minutes prior to consumption. (But remember—if you are taking samples of your water for lead, do not flush your faucets.)

3. Use Only Cold Tap Water for Drinking

Warm or hot water is more likely to contain elevated levels of lead. Also, do not boil your drinking water—that can concentrate the lead content.

4. Choose and Maintain Your Water Filter Carefully

Install and use water filters that are certified to remove lead by NSF International (labeled as meeting "NSF/ANSI Standard 53" for lead removal). See here for a review of how to pick and operate a filter, and here for a list of filters that reduce lead levels. Also, be sure to change the filter cartridges regularly, in accordance with manufacturers' instructions.

5. Maintain Your Faucet Aerators, Too

Remove and clean individual faucet aerators, as lead particles and sediment can collect in the aerator screen.

6. Protect Growing Bodies

To the extent possible, use only filtered or bottled water to prepare baby formula and food. Children and pregnant or nursing women should also use filtered or bottled water for drinking and cooking. Further, parents should consider having their children tested for lead exposure by a doctor or pediatrician.

7. If You Can Afford It, Consider Replacing Your Own Pipes and Fixtures

Determine whether you have any lead-containing pipes and fixtures in your home. A certified plumber should be able to help you if you cannot. Replace any indoor household plumbing that may contain lead. If you do install any new household pipes or fixtures, flush the cold water taps afterward.

That said, here's an important caveat: If you find that the pipe bringing water to your home from the street (service line) contains lead, do not remove that pipe. The city should remove and replace the entire length of the lead service line, because replacing only part of it could cause lead levels to increase. For more information about the problem with partial lead service line replacements, see here.

8. Call City Officials and Legislators

It's critical to urge those in charge to fix the problem and keep you informed about their progress. In Newark, residents are encouraged to contact the Newark water department, their city council members, and the mayor. (Newark city government's main number is 973-733-6400.) Express your concerns, and let officials know the city's lead levels are unacceptable. Contact your state and federal legislators (Newark's federal officials are Rep. Donald Payne Jr., 973-645-3213; Sen. Cory Booker, 973-639-8700 and Sen. Robert Menendez, 973-645-3030), and urge them to fund water infrastructure improvement projects.

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The huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about donations to the Amazon Fund. LeoFFreitas / Moment / Getty Images

By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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