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Here's What You Need to Know About the Safety of Your Home's Drinking Water

By Amy Zimmer | July 12, 2016 5:54pm
 Get your water tested, run your tap for 30 seconds and other tips about safe drinking water at home.
Get your water tested, run your tap for 30 seconds and other tips about safe drinking water at home.
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MANHATTAN — As several cities across the country face problems with lead in their water — from Flint to Newark and Hoosick Falls — New York City officials have reaffirmed the safety of the drinking water here and have taken proactive measures to test water at city schools, making those results publicly available.

The city’s water is practically lead-free when it leaves the reservoir system upstate in the Catksills, officials say. But water can absorb lead from fixtures and pipes, so lead levels in water may be elevated because of that.

Here’s what you need to know about the safety of your drinking water at home:

► First, get your water tested — it’s free.

The city has a free residential lead testing program.  You can request a kit through the health department’s website or by calling 311.

The test will require you to fill two bottles with water, first after your sink has remained unused for at least 6 hours for a “first draw” and then after running the water until it gets noticeably colder.

After mailing the samples to the city’s Department of Environmental Conservation for testing, you'll get the results in about a month.

If levels are elevated, the DEP will send an additional three-bottle test kit. If those results are also elevated, the DEP will advise you to have a licensed plumber check the building for lead pipes and have any removed.

As awareness of Flint’s water crisis increased at the end of last year, so too did the number of lead water tests New York City residents requested.

Requests were 600 percent higher in the first six months of 2016 compared to the same period in 2014 and 2015, according to DEP data.

In this past March and April, alone, the city saw more tests requested than in the previous two years combined.

► There are often elevated lead levels when turning the tap on in the morning.

In New York City’s public schools, for instance, of roughly 700 school buildings tested this year, nearly 66 percent had elevated lead levels in at least one sample, according to a DNAinfo analysis.

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who helped uncover the water crisis in Flint, told DNAinfo that the percentage of city schools with elevated lead samples was "not an abnormal level of problems," but was "entirely within the range of expectations, unfortunately."

Because elevated levels might occur after a sink hasn’t been used for several hours, it’s important to take simple precautions, experts say.

► Always run your tap for at least 30 seconds in the morning.

When water stands in your home's pipes for long periods of time — which it often does overnight or during the workday — the lead from service lines or plumbing might leach into the water and dissolve into it.

Whenever your faucet hasn’t been used for several hours, it's important to flush out the standing water. Health Department officials urge New Yorkers to run your tap for at least 30 seconds — until the water gets colder — before using it for drinking, cooking or making baby formula.

Never use hot tap water for drinking, cooking or making baby formula, health department officials added, noting that lead can dissolve more easily in hot tap water.

Also, don’t boil water to remove lead. Boiling water can actually concentrate lead, officials noted.

Health Department officials also suggest periodically cleaning your faucet screens since lead and sediment can build up there.

And if you plan on using any kind of filter, make sure the device is approved to reduce lead, since not all are.

► Understand why your water might not be entirely lead-free.

After water flows from the reservoir into large pipes — known as mains, which run under streets — it then flows through smaller pipes known as service lines that carry the water to your tap.

The service line is often where the contamination can begin.

Between 2008 to 2010, the city identified and removed any known lead service lines to schools and other municipal buildings, officials said. But there was no similar undertaking for privately owned buildings.

Plus, your home may still have pipes and fixtures with lead in them.

Nearly all homes built before the 1980s still have lead solder connecting copper pipes, according to the website of Plumbing Manufacturers International, which advocates for safe products.

And although regulations were put in place in 1986 to reduce lead in plumbing, even newer faucets and fixtures advertised as lead-free might still contribute lead to the drinking water.  

Federal law allowed plumbing fixtures like faucets to be labeled “lead-free” with up to 8 percent lead until 2 years ago. Then, starting in 2014, the federal government changed the definition of “lead-free” to limit lead to 0.25 percent.

Additionally, when the city does water main or sewer work, partially replacing pipes, they might shake loose fragments that have lain dormant.

The DEP sends notices to affected residents when this work starts, officials said. Out of precaution, the agency recommends that nearby residents run cold water for 30 minutes before using it for cooking and drinking and then for 10 minutes for the next 30 days before using the water.

The city helps to reduce lead from pipes.

The DEP’s field scientists test water daily, monitoring and adjusting pH levels to a range that reduces the corrosive nature of the water. The agency adds phosphoric acid — a common food preservative — to create a protective film on pipes that reduces the release of metals, such as lead, from household plumbing.

This important step was not taken in Flint when the city switched from Detroit’s water system and started using water from the Flint River in 2014, reports said.

There are no known links between lead in water and New York City children with lead poisoning.

Exposure to lead is especially dangerous to small children since it can disrupt cognitive functions and can cause behavioral problems.

Lead in water has not been linked to any recent cases of poisoned children in New York City. Lead paint tends to be a bigger issue, especially in buildings constructed before the banning of lead paint in 1977.

“The single most important preventive step you can take is to never sand or strip lead paint around vulnerable individuals,” wrote Philip Landrigan, professor of preventive medicine and pediatrics at Mount Sinai, in a recent Daily News op-ed.