Not much left to do about lead in water

There’s been a lot of concern over a report that the village of Saranac Lake’s drinking water tested above the state action level for lead. Some people are fretting and asking what to do, and some are even taking safety precautions such as buying bottled water. Actually, that’s not necessary.

The village already took the proper corrective action by putting into the water a corrosion-control additive similar to what they used to use. It did what it needed to, and promptly, upon learning of one sample a little bit over the acceptable limit for lead. There’s not much more anyone can do.

Nevertheless, after hearing ongoing concerns from many of our readers, we followed up on it with state Health Department officials. We can now say with reassurance that Saranac Lake water users don’t need to worry.

The water is safe for everyone to drink, children and adults alike.

Lead isn’t in the water that comes out of the wells, but water can absorb tiny particles of it as it travels through the lead solder that sometimes connects old pipes made of copper, brass or galvanized steel. That solder is generally in people’s home plumbing rather than in public mains. It was banned in the 1980s, so if your plumbing is newer than that, you should be free and clear.

Actually, everyone should be free and clear now that the corrosion-control additive is back in the water. It’s there to protect us from our own pipes, not the village’s.

Aside from replacing all your old plumbing – too expensive for most people to deal with -there are only a few things people could do to limit their exposure to lead in the water, and they’re things we all ought to be doing anyway:

1. Water is more likely to absorb lead when it’s warm or when it’s been sitting a while in the leaded plumbing. Therefore, first thing in the morning or whenever else the taps have been shut for a few hours, let the cold water run a bit before using it to drink, cook or make coffee. If it starts out lukewarm, wait until it gets cold; that’s a good indication that it’s now the water from the main rather than what was sitting in your building’s pipes.

2. For the same reason, never use hot water to drink, cook or make drinks. It’s great for washing but not for drinking. It may seem like hot water would boil quicker to make your tea or pasta, but it also strips more bad stuff (not just lead) off the inside of your pipes. You can see this for yourself if you pour a clear glass full of it and look at it after the bubbles settle. It’s likely to be cloudy, whereas the cold water should look clear.

3. If you have any further questions or concerns about your water, the Health Department office in Saranac Lake welcomes calls at 518-891-1800. If a particular building tests high, it may need new plumbing.

Lead, at high levels, can be toxic to many human organs and tissues, especially in children. However, due to important efforts of the last three decades, we all now live in a more lead-free environment than ever in living memory. A generation or two ago, we were surrounded by the fumes of cars burning leaded gasoline, and our homes were coated in lead-based paint that would chip and flake as it got older.

The Health Department didn’t start testing drinking water for lead until about 20 years ago. When those checks were new in the 1990s, a bunch of municipalities were called out for having too much lead in their water, but now that corrosion-control additives are used regularly, such citations are uncommon. The last ones in our Health Department region were in 2009 in Wilmington and 2008 in Schoon Lake.

So why Saranac Lake? Well, in late 2012 this village switched its water source from McKenzie Pond to wells. The new groundwater was lower in calcium hardness and acidity than the pond water had been, so local and state officials thought the village could get away without the corrosion-control additive.

As it turns out, we couldn’t.

Each lead sample requires 40 separate tests, and Saranac Lake gets two samples a year. After flirting with higher lead levels for a little while, the latest sample came in too high. Eight of the 40 tests were above the acceptable level; four are allowed. It’s our understanding that those tests were of the first water that left the tap; the testers wanted to see what people get when they don’t let it run first.

The village responded by doing what the Health Department recommended. The additive is similar to what it used to use, and at much lower doses than it’s allowed. We’ll wait and see what the next test shows, but logic leads us to believe it will be fine.

We will always defend people’s right to know what’s in the water, but in this case it’s nothing worth losing sleep over.