HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) -- Lead exposure associated with the water system disaster in Flint, Mich. is raising the question across the country - could it happen here?
Huntsville Utilities, like other U.S. water systems, has a set of strict protocols it is required to follow in treating water. The utility provider has done its work well enough that it routinely wins awards for having the best water treatment and water distribution facilities in Alabama.
Much of Flint’s problem stems from the corrosive water that it began drawing from the Flint River about 18 months ago, according to reports. The corrosive water wiped out any protective coating built up on the city’s pipe over the years and pulled lead into drinking water. Huntsville’s water is different and is treated with an anti-corrosive.
Gary Bailey, water supply superintendent for Huntsville Utilities, said the city has a regular testing protocol where it tests water at older homes that are potentially at-risk for elevated lead levels in the water. Last year’s test, like tests in prior years, found no detectable lead in more than 50 homes.
“We did our compliance testing for lead in the water and our results were so well that we continue to be on the reduced monitoring schedule,” Bailey said. “And fortunately in Huntsville we have a non-corrosive water.”
Bailey said there is no lead in the water being sent out by the utility. There can be lead in pipes, from the lead solder joining those pipes and in old faucets. He said there are easy steps that can be taken to mitigate any concerns.
“If you will cook with cold water, and you run the water a little bit before you use it that usually takes care of any problem that might be in your plumbing,” Bailey said.
Huntsville Utilities also said if residents are concerned about lead in the water, they can call the utility provider at 256.881.6281. They also pointed to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management website, which has a list of certified testing labs (bottom of the linked page), if someone wants to have their drinking water tested.
Lead exposure can be a serious problem for children. Alabama sees about 600 cases a year where children are found with lead levels in their blood that require reporting to the state of Alabama. The state then embarks on a protocol that requires medical follow-ups and sending health workers out to determine the source of the lead.
Dr. Lawrence Robey, county health officer for the Madison County Health Department, said lead exposure can lead to long-term problems if not identified and treated.
“Studies over the years have shown with the chronic low-level exposure to lead, there is a negative effect on the intellectual level of a child,” Robey said. “So, a child that gets exposed to lead very young will have a lower IQ over time and the higher the lead levels, the lower the IQ capacity of the child.”
Lead paint dust and even dust from cheap vinyl blinds are common sources of lead exposure, said Sal Gray, with the Alabama Department of Public Health’s indoor air quality/lead branch.
Gray said Alabama tests around 40,000 children a year for lead exposure. A lead level of above 10 micrograms per deciliter, about the size of a single sugar crystal, means the child is placed into the protocol overseen by a state case worker.
That level has recently been lowered to 5 micrograms per deciliter, Gray said.