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The local lead threat

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02/29/2016 - Health and environmental experts have been warning people for decades about the health risks associated with exposure to lead. But, as with many health issues, there is often little thought given to potential hazards until a health crisis presents itself.

With much of the nation's attention currently focused on Flint's water crisis, health and infrastructure officials are facing a deluge of questions regarding the potential of lead contaminated drinking water. However, those with such concerns may be overlooking more commonplace sources of lead poisoning.

In Flint, lead water lines were the source of contamination that resulted in a water crisis in the city. Throughout suburban Oakland County, older lead lines remain intact and are being used to some degree. However, water and health officials say anti-corrosive measures taken by the Great Lakes Water Authority formerly the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department have kept lead levels well below maximum limits for decades, a claim that can be supported by local water quality testing reports.

"That was a unique situation from a water source," said Oakland County Environmental Health Services Administrator Anthony Drautz. "The water here is typically purchased from Detroit, or is well water. I don't think the two can be compared that way. It's a different situation in Flint than in Oakland County. We are using water from Detroit, and there is corrosion control."

Still, Drautz said local residents have expressed concern about lead contamination in their drinking water.

"We are answering calls specific to lead. That's more of a situation because of what is going on in Flint," he said. "The lead we are used to being asked to look into is dust in homes, mostly in homes with lead paint. Now it's about drinking water."

Across Oakland County, the main sources of lead exposure in suburban communities are dust and lead-based paint particles that deteriorate and flake off inside older homes. Outside soils also may be contaminated by lead-based exterior paints and exhaust from lead-fueled vehicles of the 20th century, which is why nationally higher lead levels are often detected in more densely populated areas where vehicle traffic is heavier or there are more highways. The lead component in vehicle fuel is heavier and will often just fall to the ground or be carried up against buildings and then fall to the ground and mix with the soil.

The effects of lead exposure have been evident since ancient times, and in the United States since the 1920s, when leaded gasoline began to fuel automobiles. It wasn't until the 1970s in America that the government took meaningful steps to limit the use of lead in paint, and until 1995 when leaded gasoline was phased out in the United States. Despite the ban on lead-based products in this country, potential exposure to lead products remains.

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