Is flushing water lines the best way to lower lead levels? LSU Health study says no

Flint, Michigan is combating lead corrosion in their water supply. Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency in Flint, hoping for federal aid to help deal with the infrastructure issue Flint is facing. In the meantime, Flint is taking steps to deal with corrosion.

NEW ORLEANS — There’s been a lot of talk in New Orleans about how to protect children from lead exposure through old pipes, but it turns out the current recommendations for running water to flush out lead might not be the most effective way, according to a recent study by LSU’s New Orleans School of Public Health.

“While flushing taps according to prevailing guidelines (for 30 seconds to 2 minutes) may reduce water lead levels for some homes, over half the tested homes had peak water lead levels after that time, so these recommendations may inadvertently increase exposures,” said study leader Adrienne Katner, assistant research professor of environmental & occupational health sciences at LSU Health New Orleans School of Public Health.

The study recommends other lead exposure interventions, like certified water filters, especially if it’s not financially possible to replace water lines.

The research team surveyed homeowners and tested water samples from 376 New Orleans homes on the East Bank of the Mississippi River (the city’s water source) between February 2015 and November 2016. Recruited homes met criteria for the potential presence of lead.

Overall, the lead levels in New Orleans water were typically low compared to EPA standards. There was no significant difference in water lead level distribution after flushing, the study concludes.

“If the aim is to prevent childhood lead exposure altogether, preferably, or at least reduce it to the minimally detectable level …  then New Orleans may require more proactive interventions than flushing to meet this goal,” Katner said. “Prolonged and repeated flushing may also not be practical, cost-effective, or sustainable over the long term, especially in cities with declining water resources and/or rising water rates.”

The research was supported in part by the Louisiana Board of Regents’ New Research Pilot Funding Program, the National Science Foundation, LSU Health New Orleans School of Public Health and the National Institutes of Health.

The findings are published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

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