The District still has about 42,000 water service lines with lead in them, according to a D.C. Council-commissioned report released late last month. These pipes can leach the heavy metal into the water we use for cooking and drinking. Lead is dangerous even at low levels, especially for children.
DC Water has committed to replacing every lead service line in the District by 2030, but according to the report, the city will need to make some major changes in order to meet that goal. Even in the best case scenario, thousands of D.C. households will wait years to get the lead pipes removed from their homes—and Black and low-income families are more vulnerable to the impacts of exposure.
Luckily, there are steps you can take to reduce lead exposure from your family’s water. We spoke to Dr. Olanrewaju Falusi, a longtime pediatrician at Children’s National in Columbia Heights and a former president of the DC Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, to get her top tips for preventing and watching out for lead exposure in kids.
- Check your home’s service line material online
DC Water maintains an online map of the city’s service lines, which are the pipes that connect water mains to homes and other buildings. You can search for your address to find out what your service line is made of.
Each point on the map has information about the part of the pipe that runs from the water main to the curb, called the “public-side” service line, as well as the “private-side” part of the pipe that runs from the curb to the building. Each building is marked with a circle cut in half. If both halves of the circle are green, your pipe is fully non-lead. Gray indicates a lead service line, and white indicates that the material is unknown.
If you click on the circle at your address, you can find more specific information on what your service line is made out of. That’s important because pipes made of brass and galvanized iron may contain lead; in 2020, D.C. Council added them to the service lines slated for replacement.
- Install a filter at your tap or use a pitcher filter
If your home’s service lines are lead, brass, galvanized iron, or even copper—which often uses lead solder to join together segments of pipe—it’s a good idea to use a water filter for drinking and cooking, especially if you have children in your household. It’s also important to replace the filters on-schedule, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Look for filters labeled “NSF Standard 53.” Water filters certified by the National Sanitation Foundation for that standard keep 99% of lead from reaching the drinking glass or cooking pot. Prices vary, but a 3-month filter that attaches to a faucet head can cost as little as $20.
- Use cool water—boiling water will not decrease lead concentration
Lead is more likely to dissolve in warm water. Use cold tap water instead and heat it separately on the stove or in the microwave if it needs to be warm.
However, unlike bacterial contaminants, boiling water does nothing to reduce lead. In fact, it increases the concentration of lead in the water, because some of the water evaporates while the same amount of lead remains.
“If you’re mixing up formula, or giving drinking water to babies, and you’re using tap water, it’s best to use cold, filtered water,” Dr. Falusi said. “Sometimes people think, ‘Oh, if I boil my water, then it’s safer.’ It’s actually the opposite for lead.”
- Get your child screened for lead on time: twice before age 2
Children should be tested for elevated levels of lead in their blood once around their first birthday and again around their second. This is the time when children are most likely to be exposed and the time when lead exposure is most dangerous.
“Even though lead can cause sometimes irreversible brain damage, the quicker we address it, the better the outcomes are for children,” Dr. Falusi said.
Only about a third of D.C.’s children are screened for lead, according to Janet Phoenix, a public health expert who testified at a D.C. Council roundtable on lead pipe replacement last month. Even then, many of them are tested just before starting kindergarten. By that time, lead levels would have dropped even if the child was exposed earlier, when they were more vulnerable.
- Focus on fruits and veggies
“Produce—fresh fruits and vegetables—help to remove lead from the body, or reduce the effects of lead on the body,” Dr. Falusi said. “Along with removing all the lead from the environment, we also want to build up the child’s systems that can be affected.”
- Connect with your pediatrician
Symptoms for lead poisoning are hard to detect, but if your child starts experiencing unusual mood changes, stomachaches, or headaches, reach out to your doctor. While these symptoms have many different causes, your pediatrician may want to conduct a lead screening test just in case.
“The thing about lead is that no level is really considered safe. And it can be very deceptive because the symptoms are often vague,” Dr. Falusi said. “That’s what makes it tough to say, ‘Oh, that is definitely a child who has been impacted by lead.’ We don’t know unless we check.”
- Check for other sources of lead
In recent years, drinking water rarely causes acute lead poisoning in the District. If your child is experiencing noticeable symptoms, the exposure is more likely to come from paint, soil, or lead objects your child has put in their mouth.
If your house was built prior to 1978, you may want to check your walls for lead paint. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission also keeps track of products recalled for containing too-high lead content.