CEDAR FALLS — “Lead never ever goes away.”
That’s the warning University of Northern Iowa graduate student Julie Grunklee has for parents about the dangers of the heavy metal, particularly to children.
While her presentations across the Cedar Valley note even low levels of exposure are dangerous, Grunklee also provides simple solutions.
It’s the kind of work Mike Prideaux has done for years as the coordinator for the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program in Black Hawk and surrounding counties. That work, along with testing at-risk children, has reduced the number of children exposed.
As cloudy, toxic water continues to flow in Flint, Mich., the danger of lead poisoning has caught the attention of the entire country.
But the reaction can cut two ways.
“I’ll tell you, it’s kind of a funny business. Sometimes you struggle getting a parent to, frankly, realize this is serious,” Prideaux said. “On the other end of the spectrum is the parent that reads every word about Flint and is concerned about the water here, and their water didn’t taste right.
“They’re overly concerned, and that’s good there’s interest, but sometimes it can kind of mask the real issue here, which is lead paint. We don’t have a water issue here in Iowa with lead. But we do have a lead paint issue.”
Municipal water supplies in Waterloo and Cedar Falls are not a concern.
Both cities release a yearly report on the level of chemicals and metals in the water, and lead falls well below the amount that requires action. The water sources themselves do not contain lead. Any elevated level comes from corrosion in home plumbing.
“In Cedar Falls, the service lines between water mains and homes generally do not contain lead. Our water supply is drawn from deep wells, as it has been for decades, so there’s been no change in our water source. Our municipal water is not corrosive. In short, the factors that caused Flint’s crisis are not present here,” reads a newsletter from Cedar Falls Utilities sent to customers late last month.
A statement from Waterloo Water Works General Manager Dennis Clark offered similar reassurance.
“Lead is not present in Waterloo’s source water from wells, and the water leaving the wells is lead free,” Clark said. Any lead detected would be from private service lines, interior piping and plumbing fixtures in customers’ homes and businesses. “If drinking water is corrosive, it can attack these pipes and fixtures releasing lead into the water. Waterloo water is naturally noncorrosive with a pH of 7.5 percent.”
He said because the water has a relatively high level of calcium, it is more likely to form a protective coating on the interior of pipes and fixtures, which helps protect against elevated levels of lead.
If you have concerns about home piping, let your water run cold for a few minutes before filling a glass to clear out stagnant water in the pipes. Betty Zeman of CFU suggested people choosing to do that fill a jug to water plants or for cleaning to prevent wasting water.
Some filtration systems also will remove lead from water.
Though municipal water supplies are safe, Zeman and others note people should test private wells regularly.
“There’s no regulations that govern that. People have to test their own well water,” said Catherine Zeman, UNI professor of health, physical education and leisure services. She is leading a research internship focusing on graduate student Grunklee’s lead efforts.
“There’s clear research data I’ve done over the last 10 years that show that people really don’t service or test their wells the way they should. It’s just not happening,” Zeman said.
While city water isn’t a concern, Prideaux makes clear lead paint coating the outside and inside of homes throughout the four-county area he covers keeps him busy.
“Lead paint is enough,” Prideaux said.
The region’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program ensures young people are screened at appropriate ages — 12 months and 24 months — and if their blood levels are elevated officials meet with families to discuss ways to reduce exposure.
The program has had particular success with its door-to-door summer initiative, where health professionals target homes likely to have lead and seek to test children in those homes.
“We start when school’s out, and we go about six weeks in the summer, and it’s pretty labor intensive, but we always turn up EBL (elevated blood level) kids that we would have not found had we not done that,” Prideaux said. “We’ve found some highly lead-poisoned children that were not tested at their physician’s office, or had been tested in the past but they moved to this (new) house.”
Results can be seen in the significantly reduced rate of children under age 6 exposed to lead in Waterloo, Black Hawk County and across the state since 2000.
Some reduction is due to demolition of aging homes. Homes built before 1978, when lead paint was banned, and especially before 1950, are likely to have lead paint. Prideaux also credits better screening and disclosure measures and the region’s prevention program.
“But there’s still a lot of kids out there. I’ve done this for years, and you just know. Just drive around the city, drive around anywhere. Look at all the houses and look at the homes that have chipping and peeling paint,” Prideaux said. “It’s pretty overwhelming sometimes.”
Signs of lead paint are cracked paint, with paint flakes that are sweet. Window sills or other areas a child may be able to touch are particular areas to check.
While it can be easy to spot lead paint, Prideaux said, seeing its impact can be moredifficuly. The long-term effects can resemble ADHD, with children being hyperactive and unable to concentrate.
For her graduate work, Grunklee will test children who may have been exposed and find out what methods best reduce blood lead levels without necessarily resorting to abatement, an expensive process.
For now, though, she is focused on teaching people where lead presents itself — besides paint, some imported items can contain lead — and how parents can lessen exposure risk.
In the presentations given with her colleagues in the Panther Initiative for Environmental Equity and Resilience, or PIEER, Grunklee stresses three simple steps to reduce exposure:
Clean children’s hands with soap, particularly before eating.
Keeping children away from peeling or worn paint, and clean such areas with a wet dust rag.
Ensure children eat enough calcium and iron.
Those are cheap alternatives to abatement. Federal funds to help with lead remediation have run out.
The information at times can cause heartache — Grunklee realizes she exposed her children to lead when her family remodeled their home 20 years ago. But she knows their efforts make a difference.
“I want to make it so people don’t think that they have no options, that people don’t think that it’s hopeless,” Grunklee said. “There are things that people can do. It’s not hopeless.”