Get the lead out!

Back in November, our Frogtown household got a letter from the city’s water agency – Saint Paul Regional Water Services – that suggested we should be concerned about lead in the buried water pipes that bring water from the street line to our house. Did you get that letter, too? 
If your house – like ours – was built before 1946, then you, too, may wonder if you take steps to “get the lead out.” Lead’s health effects include harm to kidneys and red blood cell damage in adults, but the main concern is its effect on our kids. Children who have elevated lead blood levels often have trouble with paying attention, learning, and achieving in school. 
Hence, the concern on the part of the St Paul Water Service (SPRWS), about lead in some St Paul water pipes. “SPRWS treats water to minimize corrosion in the service lines and therefore exposure to customers,” explains Racquel Vaske, assistant general manager. “But the best way to minimize lead exposure is to eliminate service lines of this material.” The process will take about a decade and cost of $300 million, according to Vaske.
What’s in my pipes?
Do your pipes have lead in them? You can check, and see when they are likely to be replaced, by searching for your address on a map maintained by the SPRWS. (Just Google “Lead-Free SPRWS,“and click on the “service materials map,” then enter your address. Or, go to, and follow the prompts.)
When I did this, our home address showed up as a purple rectangle, which means that our service line has lead in it and will be replaced. As areas are scheduled for replacement work, households will be notified by mail. Don’t want to wait? If you want to remove your private lead service lines earlier than scheduled by SPRWS, you can qualify for a low interest loan to have the work done on your own.
In the meantime, there are easy steps we can take to reduce exposure to lead in water, including rinsing out the filter and aerator on our faucet to remove any small particles, and letting our water run for 60 seconds the first time we turn it on.  SPRWS will also test household water for free; you can pick up a sample bottle at 1900 Rice Street, weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. 
Worry less about water
But hey, when it comes to lead, it turns out that it’s not just water, or even primarily water, that we should be concerned about. There are other, more frequent sources of lead in our households. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), lead can be found in many places in our homes. 
By far the most common source of lead that affects young children is from paint. Lead-based paints were banned for residential use in 1978, but homes before 1978 are likely to still have some lead-based paint on the walls. Toddlers love to explore and put things in their mouth, including paint chips or dust, when they play around painted walls or windowsills.
Like many Frogtown homes, our house was built in the early 1900s, when lead based paint was all there was. Our home had been painted many times before we bought it in 1981. But when our kids were small, we kept them away from even slightly peeling paint surfaces, and we immediately swept and mopped up the dust generated from home renovation projects.
Lead in candy?
Lead is also found in some unlikely places in our homes. Would you believe, in spicy candy? “Certain candy ingredients, such as chili powder and tamarind, may be a source of lead exposure. Lead can get into the candy when drying, storing, and grinding the ingredients are done improperly,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Do you or your family members shop for traditional remedies at one of Frogtown’s many import markets? The CDC also urges caution around children and traditional remedies from other countries, such as daw tway, a digestive aid used in Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). Analysis of daw tway samples showed they contain as much as 970 parts per million of lead. Greta and azarcon (also known as alarcon, coral, luiga, maria luisa, or rueda) are Hispanic traditional medicines taken for an upset stomach, constipation, diarrhea, and vomiting, or for teething pain in babies. The lead content in these remedies can be as high as 90%, the CDC warns.
Take action to reduce lead
Lead is found in many places in our homes, but if we take care, it needn’t present a problem. If this article raises your concern about lead in your water pipes, contact the Saint Paul Regional Water Service, 651-266-6820. If you think a member of your family might have lead in their blood from any source, talk with your doctor or health care provider about getting their blood tested. This simple test should be free, and treatment can eliminate the problem. 
The Ramsey County public health department has grants to help families reduce their exposure to lead.  If you would like a “lead check” – an inspection of your home to assess for lead hazards – call the public health department  at 651-266-1199.
Frogtown Green is a resident-led and volunteer-powered environmental initiative in St Paul’s most diverse neighborhood. Patricia Ohmans is an environmental health educator and co-director of Frogtown Green.


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