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Lead in NYC tap water is a danger despite quality system

New York City has one of the cleanest water systems in the world, but you should still take steps to ensure your water supply is safe.

New York City has one of the cleanest water systems in the world, but you should still take steps to ensure your water supply is safe.

We New Yorkers take pride in the purity and taste of our drinking water — water so clean that it doesn’t need to be filtered.

In fact, there is little or no health benefit to drinking bottled water if you live in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and sections of Queens.

In other parts of the world, tap water can be completely undrinkable, even dangerous. Unfortunately, that now has happened in the United States. The horrific news about lead-contaminated water in Flint, Mich., has some of us wondering if New York City water still lives up to its reputation for safety and cleanliness.

Thankfully, the answer is “Yes.”

We are fortunate to have one of the best water systems in the world, thanks to the far-sighted people who started our aqueduct system 175 years ago. The Catskill Mountains water that supplies our needs is superb.

And the city government has invested billions of dollars to ensure that the infrastructure bringing our water south preserves that quality.

However, New York City tap water can get contaminated once it moves into the pipes that supply individual buildings, homes, and even schools — in fact, an incident of lead contamination in schools recently occurred in Newark, N.J.

Corrosive water, which has high acidity and low calcium carbonate, is more likely to leach lead from pipes. Fortunately, our water’s acid and calcium content are carefully controlled.

Still, if you live in an older house that may have lead pipes, you can take a simple step to reduce the risk of lead contamination: run a tap for at least 30 seconds in the morning, before using it for drinking, food preparation, or baby formula.

Running the tap clears the lines, flushing water that has been in the pipes overnight.

Some parts of the New York metropolitan area have a less secure water supply. Sections of Queens and Long Island rely on well water, which can be affected by soil contaminants.

If your water comes from a well, scrutinize the water company’s annual statement about chemical levels in the water. If you have any doubts about its safety, send a sample of your water for testing, either to the Environmental Protection Agency or to a private company — just make sure the company you use is certified by the state.

Despite our enviably clean water, New Yorkers still need to be on the watch for lead exposure from another source: lead-based paint and the dust spread as it peels.

This is mainly a pediatric problem, because the main route of exposure is oral. Young children crawling on the floor often put fingers, which can be covered by lead-contaminated dust, and foreign objects, like paint chips, in their mouth.

Pregnant women, too, must avoid lead exposure, because it has been shown to damage babies, even in utero.

Lead causes injury to tissues throughout the body, but children’s brains are especially vulnerable.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a blood level of above five micrograms of lead per deciliter in children ages one to five is cause for public health actions. At that level, damage is being done to tissues in the brain and elsewhere in the body.

One of the challenges posed by lead poisoning is that there usually aren’t any symptoms until the levels are quite high. Blood lead levels of 5, 10, or 15 micrograms erode several points of IQ, shortening the child’s intelligence and language use.

Research shows that lead particularly disrupts executive function, the brain’s ability to control impulse-basically — what keeps us from doing “stupid” things. Remediation programs have been shown to help children affected by lead poisoning succeed in school.

What can parents do to protect their families from lead exposure? If your building predates the banning of lead paint in 1977, you should assume that lead is present. The single most important preventive step you can take is to never sand or strip lead paint around vulnerable individuals.

Even old lead paint under many coats of newer paint or wallpaper should be removed with great care — ideally, by professionals.

Children and pregnant women should be out of the house, and not return until a proper cleanup has been conducted.

Fortunately, City Hall is proactive about addressing the potential problems of water contamination and lead poisoning. We have strong housing laws, and lead levels in water are closely monitored.

If you have questions or cause for concern about lead contamination, please call the city’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at 311.

Philip Landrigan, , MD, MSc (phil.landrigan@mssm.edu) is the Dean for Global Health at Arnhold Institute for Global Health and Professor of Preventive Medicine and Pediatrics Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

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