Lead in Drinking Water: Frequently Asked Questions

02-21-13

Why is there lead in the water?

The City of Bellingham water does not contain high levels of lead.

Lead levels are present in water in older buildings because of the construction materials used to distribute and provide the drinking water.

Lead that is present in the lead-containing solder, brass fixtures, or lead connectors can enter the water. Lead may also be present because drinking fountains manufactured before the 1980’s can contain some lead parts.

What can I do to minimize drinking water with traces of lead?

There are two things to do regularly to minimize the amount of lead you drink.

  1. Flush Your Pipes Before Drinking
    Anytime the water in a particular faucet has not been used for six hours or longer, "flush" your cold-water pipes by running the water until it becomes as cold as it will get.
    (This could take as little as five to thirty seconds if there has been recent heavy water use such as showering or toilet flushing. Otherwise, it could take two minutes or longer.) The more time water has been sitting in the pipes, the more lead it may contain.
  2. Drink and Cook Only with Cold Water
    Use only water from the cold-water tap for drinking, cooking, and especially for making baby formula. Hot water is likely to contain higher levels of lead.
    These two recommended actions are very important to your health. They can be effective in reducing lead levels because the lead in Bellingham water comes from the plumbing, not from the water supply itself.

What is lead?

Lead is a metal found in natural deposits in the earth’s crust. Lead is a well-described environmental poison. At high levels, it can affect people’s health.

How harmful is drinking water with traces of lead?

Whether or not exposure to lead causes health problems depends upon how much lead exposure occurs and the susceptibility of the person who is exposed. Children are considered at greater risk than adults.

Generally, lead exposures received by people drinking from fountains at school or work settings are not high because drinking fountain water represents a small part of most people's overall water consumption. Individuals’ health status differs so you may wish to discuss this issue with a health care provider.

How widespread is this problem?

The U.S. EPA estimates that more than 40 million U.S. residents use water that can contain lead in excess of the maximum contaminant level.

Is there a medical test to determine if I’ve been exposed to lead?

A blood test is available to measure lead in a person’s blood. This test shows health care providers an estimate of recent exposure to lead.

How can I be tested?

WWU recommends that employees who may be concerned about their lead exposure should visit Whatcom Occupational Health (676-1693). The visit would include completing a WA State Department of Labor and Industries’ accident report form with the doctor, who will file a workers’ compensation claim on the employee’s behalf.

Why are the drinking water results written differently in different places?

The values in the results table have the units of parts of lead per billion parts of water (ppb). This is equivalent to micrograms of lead per liter of drinking water (ug/l).

Avocet, the independent testing laboratory used for testing, reports results in milligrams of lead per liter of water (mg/l). Milligrams per liter are equivalent to parts per million (ppm).

There are 1000 parts per billion in one part per million. The first result received for the fifth floor of Arntzen is shown below in different units which all represent the same concentration of lead in the water:

  • 0.028 mg/l
  • 0.028 ppm
  • 28 ug/l
  • 28 ppb

What is WWU's drinking water sampling protocol?

For the 2008/2009 Initial Survey and 2013 Follow-Up Survey, samples were collected as described by the WA State Department of Health (refer to the links page). Initial samples were the first 250 milliliters (ml) of water taken from the tap after a 6 to 18 hour shut down. Prior to shutting down, sampling personnel flushed cold water through the system.

During the 2008/2009 Initial Survey, some locations were re-tested. These samples used the same preliminary flush and shut down method. However, after the tap sits for 6 to 18 hours, cold water is flushed for 30 seconds prior to collection of the 250 ml sample.

Page Updated 11.15.2013