Bob Downing

Lead can cause serious health problems, especially for pregnant women and young children.

It is a toxic heavy metal found in lead-based paint, air, soil, household dust, food, certain types of pottery, porcelain and pewter.

The potent neurotoxin can build up in the body over time and cause damage to the brain, red blood cells and kidneys.

Lead can slow normal mental and physical development of children, lower IQs and cause learning behavior, hearing and speech problems. It also can cause miscarriages, lower birth weights, learning disabilities and behavioral problems in children and high blood pressure in adults.

Lead levels have declined sharply since it was removed from gasoline in 1996. Lead-based paint is the main exposure.

In 2012, Summit County health agencies screened 5,768 children for lead. A total of 34 youngsters had the highest lead levels that required medical treatment, with an additional 180 having lower levels that required a less-active intervention.

Lead in drinking water can increase a person’s total lead exposure. It is rarely the sole cause of lead poisoning, although experts say it can account for 10 to 20 percent of an exposure.

Risk will vary, depending on the individual, the circumstances and the amount of water consumed, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Being at or near 15 parts per billion does not necessarily pose an immediate threat, the agency says.

Lead is not normally found in drinking water supplies. It enters the water as a result of corrosion from pipes into the water distribution system and household plumbing.

When water stands in lead pipes or plumbing containing lead for several hours or more, the lead may dissolve into drinking water. That means the first water drawn from the tap in the morning and late in the afternoon after school and work can contain high levels of lead.

You cannot see, taste or smell lead in drinking water.

You can test your water for lead. Such kits costing as little as $12 are readily available at hardware stores. Akron will provide a free kit if requested to its water customers. Call 330-375-2420.

Replacing your portion of a water line is not cheap. That will likely cost about $1,500 in the Akron area, depending on the setback distance from the street.

Precautions to take

If tests confirm high lead levels, there are other precautions you can take:

• Let the water from the tap run for one to two minutes before using it for drinking or cooking if the water in the faucet has been unused for more than six hours. Run the cold water and flush individual faucets before drinking or cooking with the water. Use the first water for washing dishes or watering plants. Fill plastic bottles with drinking water, after flushing the tap.

• Do not cook with or drink water from the hot water tap. Hot water can dissolve more lead more quickly than cold water. If you need hot water, draw it from the cold water tap and heat it on the stove.

• Use cold water for cooking and preparing baby formula.

• Do not boil water to remove lead. That will not reduce lead levels.

• Determine if your plumbing fixtures contain lead and consider replacing them. Lead-free fixtures (through 2014) could contain up to 8 percent lead.

• Devices like distillers or reverse osmosis systems can remove lead from your drinking water. Some activated carbon filters may reduce the lead level at the tap. All lead reduction claims should be checked. Such systems can be costly.

• Purchase bottled water for drinking and cooking. You can safely shower and bathe. Human skin does not absorb lead in water.

For more information, contact the Akron water department at 330-375-2420, the National Lead Information Center at 800-424-LEAD or the federal Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791 (www.epa.gov/lead).