Some believe lead contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. Heavily used in ancient times for many purposes including sweetening wine, it caused an array of illnesses — everything from neurological damage to sterility. Added to paint and gasoline in 20th century America, it is thought lead’s corrosive effects on brains and bodies contributed to youth violence and poor school performance by inner-city kids.
The quantity of lead found in drinking water in some Oregon schools is far below the astronomical levels that once caused devastating diseases. But parents, children and officials are right to exercise great caution when it comes to lead. Even a cursory search on the internet for information about lead exposure turns up literally millions of frightening references. Symptoms include everything from learning difficulties and loss of appetite to hearing loss and constipation.
Modern-day Oregon parents aren’t inclined to take such news sitting down, particularly after shocking news of widespread lead exposure and official indifference in Flint, Michigan.
Eastern Oregon schools are at various stages of conducting tests of drinking water. Statewide, Gov. Kate Brown has recommended tests by school districts and licensed child care facilities — the state doesn’t have legal authority to insist on these tests.
It’s obvious that everyone who looks after children should make certain drinking water is safe. Testing and prompt remediation of plumbing systems that leach lead into water is essential — the sooner the better.
Many homes and commercial buildings in rural Oregon date from a time before there was much concern about lead. Even some relatively new homes have the potential of exposing residents to unacceptable levels of lead and copper — the latter also can cause health problems. It wasn’t until 1991 that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act began heightening awareness of the issue. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests using “only cold water from the tap for drinking, cooking, and making baby formula. Hot water is more likely to contain higher levels of lead. Most of the lead in household water usually comes from the plumbing in your house, not from the local water supply.”
Lead paint was commonly used until 1978, and children can absorb it by eating cracked and peeling paint or playing in rooms or soil contaminated with paint dust. Take precautions to avoid having children spend time in pre-1978 houses that are in the midst of renovation, which can spread lead dust. In all pre-1978 buildings, assume that the paint has lead unless tests show otherwise. The CDC advises, “Because household dust is a major source of lead, you should wet-mop floors and wet-wipe horizontal surfaces every 2-3 weeks.”
None of this is panic-worthy. Rational precautions by families and school officials will substantially lower any risk that might stem from low-level lead exposure. But it is worth paying attention to, and making certain authorities follow through on their promises.