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Lead-based paint and paint dust are a much larger concern than lead exposure through drinking water in Iowa, experts who spoke with IowaWatch said.

“It’s estimated that in terms or your lead exposure, especially for a child, maybe only 20 percent of the lead exposure come from the water. There’d be other routes that would be more important, more problematic,” State Toxicologist Stuart Schmitz said.

Lead in tap water can come from corrosion in older fixtures or plumbing or, for households using public water supplies, from the pipes connecting a house to the water main. Infants, children and pregnant women, especially, are advised to reduce exposures to lead, which can have severe impacts on a child’s development.


Concern about lead in drinking water has increased nationwide since lead was reported in the Flint, Michigan, municipal water system, in early 2015. Lead was one of several contaminants found in Flint’s public drinking water dating to summer 2014.

IowaWatch tested rural private wells for lead in May and June as part of an investigation into well water contamination in Iowa. A handful of southwest Iowa wells – five of 28 tested – had detectible levels of lead, ranging from 2 to 5 parts per billion but not higher than the maximum EPA public water action level of 15 parts per billion.

Lead is not included in an Iowa Grants to Counties testing program, which provides free or reduced cost well testing to homeowners in participating counties.

Lead exposure from lead-based paint, chips and dust in houses built before 1978, the year the federal government banned consumer use of lead paint, is considered a far more common source of lead exposure.

Schmitz said determining exactly what lead levels would be safe is difficult because often the way lead exposure is measured is in a child’s blood. Caregivers and health officials can work backwards if the level is high and find ways to lower that child’s lead exposure.

“There’s a fairly easy way to measure the contaminant in the blood,” he said. “Depending upon what that level is you have a course of action to do things within the home to protect the child.”


Over the past 30 years, laws and regulations have decreased individuals’ exposure to lead through drinking water. Amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1986, 1996 and 2011 mandated that any pipe, solder, flux or plumbing fitting or fixture must be lead free if it is used in a public water system or in plumbing for drinking water in a residential or non-residential facility.

For public drinking water consumers, the U.S. EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, created in 1991, requires public water utilities use corrosion control treatment to prevent lead and copper from leaching into drinking water. It also requires utilities to monitor drinking water at customer taps.

If lead or copper concentrations exceed action levels — 15 parts per billion for lead or 1.3 parts per million for copper — in more than 10 percent of the taps sampled, the utility system must work to control corrosion.

As with many contaminants, the only way to know if drinking water contains lead is to have it tested, because lead has no taste or smell.

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA is tasked with determining a non-enforceable health goal level at which contaminants in drinking water are unlikely to cause adverse health effect. Although the action level for lead is 15 parts per billion, the EPA has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at zero since the heavy metal can be harmful at low levels and can accumulate in the body over time.

Infants and young children are more vulnerable to lead than adults. Low levels of exposure have been linked with nervous system damage, learning disabilities, hearing issues, slowed growth and the impaired formation and function of blood cells. Pregnant or breastfeeding women also are advised to limit exposure to lead, as it can impact a developing fetus, leading to issues including reduced growth or premature birth and can be passed on to an infant through breast milk.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends public health actions be taken if a child’s blood lead level is 5 micrograms per deciliter or more. If a child’s blood lead level is 45 micrograms per deciliter or more, chelation therapy to remove heavy metals from the blood is recommended. No blood lead level is considered safe.

In adults, exposure to lead can impact the kidneys, reproductive organs and cardiovascular system.

According to an EPA publication on lead in drinking water, consumers can take some measures to decrease the amount of lead in their water. When a faucet hasn’t been used for six hours or longer, flushing the system by running the water until it becomes cold, about one to two minutes, can decrease lead levels.

Using cold water also is advised because hot water is more likely to contain higher levels of lead. Boiling water does not get rid of lead.

Lauren Shotwell
Lauren Shotwell

Reporter Lauren Mills Shotwell spent 10 months doing research and testing rural well water quality in Iowa and learning how to conduct well water tests before deciding to focus on southwest Iowa. Working with five county sanitarians and interviewing several others and specialists she contacted rural residents whose drinking water came from private wells. Using Fund for Investigative Journalism grant money she tested 28 wells in May and June. The State Hygienic Lab at the University of Iowa analyzed the results. IowaWatch then shared the results with the residents willing to have their wells tested for this project.

Shotwell, IowaWatch’s first paid full-time digital analyst/reporter, became news director of Little Village magazine in Iowa City in September 2016.

Crisis in Our Wells:
Iowa’s Private Well Water Often Goes Untested, Presenting Unknown Heath Risks
Potential Contaminants in Your Well Water
Arsenic in Drinking Water Tied To Diseases
Water Quality Regulations In Iowa
Building A Database For Iowa’s Wells
Past Studies Show Contamination Levels in Iowa’s Rural Wells

Why You Should Plug An Old Well

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