Area water and health officials are preparing two publicity campaigns about health problems that can be caused by lead in drinking water.
In the first campaign, the Environmental Protection Agency has required every water utility in the country to buy display newspaper advertisements to warn consumers about potential health hazards associated with lead in drinking water. The ads will tell consumers where lead contamination originates and what consumers can do to help eliminate potential problems."Too much lead in the human body can cause serious damage to the brain, kidneys, nervous system and the red blood cells," the EPA reports. "The greatest risk, even with short-term exposure, is to young children and pregnant women."
The second campaign is being prepared to calm jitters caused by the first campaign and possibly to take steam from aggressive salesmen who would play on the lead threat to sell unneeded water purification devices, said Robert B. Hilbert, chairman of the Utah Safe Drinking Water Committee and general manager of the Salt Lake County Water Conservancy District.
A June 8 press conference has been scheduled by the drinking water committee and the state health department to discuss the lead issue and announce the EPA-mandated campaign, which is supposed to be published three times before June 19.
Similar two-shot publicity campaigns are being prepared by water utilities in other states as well.
"The utilities' concern, and my concern, is it's a very emotional issue," Hilbert said. "The health community knows the impacts of lead. We're selling unleaded gasoline. We're eliminating lead in paint - it's a gradual move to rid our environment of lead, and it's working," he said.
But the EPA's required publicity may throw a scare into some Utahns. Hilbert said health and water officials hope to quell any skepticism about the safety of Utah's water supplies without making it sound as if they're telling people, "You're going to die, but don't worry about it."
"There's a certain percentage of people that will get awful spooky when this comes out. They think there's a conspiracy that drinking water people are trying to poison them," Hilbert said.
"We are to provide water to the meter. If a customer injects something into his water in his home, that's beyond our liability and control. That's the issue EPA's been wrestling with: How do we protect the consumer when he takes water out of the tap?" Hilbert said.
The EPA reports lead levels are likely to be highest in a home that has lead pipes or is served by a water system that has lead pipes; or if lead solder was used in a home with copper plumbing that is less than 5 years old, or has soft or acidic water.
Utah water sources are "pretty clean" in terms of a lead problem, Hilbert said. The cautions both the EPA and local officials want to stress are that many lead sources are in the home plumbing, not in the public water supply, and that lead accumulations can be easily flushed from home water lines if a danger is perceived.
Until several years ago, solder used to join copper plumbing fittings in homes contained lead. The lead in the solder gradually "leached" or dissolved into the water. Federal law prohibits the use of lead solder now, Hilbert said, but some older solder containing lead is still around.
Older homes with galvanized plumbing lines have no lead solder, unless new fixtures have been soldered into the old system. In newer homes where solder containing lead was used with copper plumbing lines, the lead that comes in contact with the water leaches out of the solder in two to three years, Hilbert said.