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Protecting Your Workers from Contaminated Drinking Water

Keeping hydrated during the work day is important, but dangers lurk in aging lines that expose workers to lead.

Lead exposure is not a new risk to those who work in the manufacturing, construction and service sectors. However, one of the most common sources of lead poisoning—contaminated drinking water—is often an overlooked area of concern on job sites and in the workplace.

Although the United States government has been working to reduce lead exposure within its communities for decades, concern among citizens has continued to grow because of incidents like the water crisis in Flint, Mich. and ongoing lead contamination issues in Newark, N.J. 

According to the book “Happiness at Work” by Jessica Pryce-Jones, the average American spends 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime. With this much of our time spent at the office, on the road, or on job sites, it’s equally important to be aware of the quality of your drinking water and vigilant about potential sources of water contamination both at home and work. 

Lines to Exposure

In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated there were approximately 10 million lead water service lines in the United States. Despite efforts to remove these lines and reduce exposure to lead, about 6.1 million lead lines remain today and continue to contaminate tap water of communities throughout the country.

Even buildings without lead service lines are at risk for contamination, as many brass and iron pipes are soldered with lead. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports some public drinking water fountains use lead-lined tanks in offices and schools. 

Water passing through these fixtures wears down the metal through a process known as corrosion, and trace amounts of lead are deposited in water. Most consumers are unable to detect the presence of lead in drinking water by sight, taste, or smell—so, it’s imperative to find out what’s in your drinking water.

Health Effects

The current U.S. legal limit on the amount of lead in water is 15-parts-per-billion. By comparison, the legal lead limit in Canada is 5-parts-per-billion. U.S. communities face health risks as a result of these increased limits and the effects have been well documented.
Children are most vulnerable to lead poisoning, with negative health impacts such as developmental delay, learning difficulties, hearing loss, digestive issues, and abdominal pain. More than 500,000 U.S. kids aged one to five have elevated amounts of lead in their blood, at levels in which health actions are recommended, according to CDC data.
Pregnant women also face increased risk from lead exposure, and negative effects include an increased chance of miscarriage and damage to the baby’s brain, kidney, and nervous system.
   Adults with prolonged exposure to lead may deal with health effects such as:
•  Joint and muscle pain
•  High blood pressure
•  Heart disease
•  Difficulties with memory or concentration
•  Headache
•  Abdominal pain
•  Kidney disease
•  Reduced fertility
•  Mood disorders.

Many people aren’t aware of their exposure to lead until it’s too late, which is why prevention is the best method for combating these negative health effects. Read the water quality report in your city and determine what actions to take at home and in the workplace to minimize your exposure to lead in drinking water.

Common Myths

As mentioned earlier, many people mistakenly believe “flushing” reduces exposure to lead in drinking water—but that’s not the only misconception.
Other common myths about lead in drinking water include:
1. There’s a safe level of lead exposure for drinking and cooking
False: Although the U.S. legal limit for the amount of lead is 15-parts-per-billion, the World Health Organization and water experts agree there is no safe amount of lead exposure.
2. Only older buildings and homes are affected
False: The CDC reports that most buildings constructed before 1978 are likely to contain some lead-based paint and the EPA notes any building less than five years old likely has lead-contaminated water. This is because of the use of lead to solder pipes in modern facilities.
3. If my city’s annual water report is clean, my water is safe
False: Even if a city’s water passes lead testing, lead can still contaminate water in your home and workplace through interior pipes or the pipes connecting the building to the main water line.
4. Boiling your water helps
False: Boiling water containing lead increases the toxic metal’s concentration. Hot water is more corrosive than cold water and causes lead to dissolve faster, which is why it’s important to avoid cooking with lead-contaminated water.
5. All water filters remove lead
False: Many common filters are only designed to remove chlorine in order to improve taste, which means lead can still be present in filtered water. When purchasing a filter, choose one that has been certified to remove lead. Specifically, look for NSF/ANSI 53 and 58 certified filters, which are tested by NSF International—an independent, not-for-profit organization that aims to prevent adverse health effects and protect the environment.

Reducing Exposure

The first step toward reducing your exposure to lead is to address the drinking water in both the home and workplace. Many people believe running cold water through a tap before drinking (a process known as “flushing”) reduces the presence of lead—but researchers found this practice may actually increase exposure. 
One effective way to reduce exposure would be to replace the 6.1 million lead water service lines. Lead lines are continuously being removed throughout the U.S., but at an average rate of 0.5% per year, it will take nearly two centuries to replace the whole system.

As a result, water experts recommend installing independently tested and certified water filters in homes, workplaces, schools and more to reduce lead exposure. The two most effective filtration methods for addressing lead are reverse osmosis and ion exchange.

Reverse Osmosis: This filtration process pushes a solvent or micron through a porous membrane which removes nearly everything larger than a water molecule. Basically, this process removes lead in addition to other particles such as fluoride, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and asbestos.
Ion Exchange: Ion exchange works like a magnet. Basically, the filter uses a potassium ion to bond to and grab heavy metal contaminants, such as lead from water sources. Some of these filters are capable of removing 99% of lead along with other contaminants.

Filtration systems utilizing these methods provide clean, healthy water that’s safe to drink and tastes great.

If having a certified water filter installed in the workplace is not an option, the most effective way to reduce your exposure to lead-contaminated water outside of the home is to bring your own bottle of water to the office and on job sites. Bring a reusable bottle with clean, filtered water from home, or consider using a bottle with a built-in filter that removes lead and other contaminants on the spot. 

On the Path to Lead-Free Water 

Although communities across the U.S. are taking steps to phase out aging pipes and water infrastructure that have the potential of leaching lead, it is an expensive and slow-moving process. 
In the meantime, individuals and private sector businesses can take their own action by educating themselves and their workforce about the negative effects of being exposed to this toxic metal through drinking water and employing independently tested and certified filtration options as a first line of defense against lead-contaminated water.  EHS
Derek Mellencamp is the general manager and CMO of Aquasana (www.aquasana.com), maker of water treatment products including whole house, under sink, countertop and shower filtration solutions.
 

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