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Get the lead out

In this age of PVC pipe and space age metal alloys, it seems odd that lead is used in plumbing at all.

Lead poisoning causes brain damage, a reality that came to the forefront as a public health threat more than a generation ago because children were eating lead paint chips and suffering terrible consequences. Just try to buy lead paint these days. Other less harmful ways were found to give the luster to paint that made lead a desirable additive.

Similarly, lead hasn't been added to gasoline to serve as a lubricant for more than two decades.

It continues, however, to be used in plumbing. Possibly this is a hard tradition to break. Indeed, the word plumbing comes from the old Latin word for lead, plumbum. Lead pipes were what carried water from Rome's famous aqueducts to homes, baths and fountains in the eternal city. There have been theories proffered, though unproven, that brain damage caused by water drunk from these lead pipes was a factor in the collapse of Imperial Rome.

A few months ago, lead contamination was found in water in homes in Forest Hill's Grafton Ridge neighborhood, and the most likely cause was identified as lead in fixtures in the homes rather than the well water itself.

Municipal water operations long have been aware that lead was used to an even higher degree in homes back in the lead paint days and one way they have dealt with the problem is has been to keep the water in municipal supplies at specific pH (acidity) levels so as not to promote the dissolving of lead in pipes.

Wells pose a different kind of problem as pH is hard to regulate and must be done house by house. This, of course, wouldn't be necessary if the plumbing materials used didn't contain lead.

While the elemental metal has its uses in situations where it is largely unreactive and not likely to get into people's bloodstreams — it's wonderful for adding weight — in situations where it can end up inside people its presence really needs to be re-thought.

If lead can be removed from paint and gasoline, there's probably a way it can be easily removed from plumbing systems.

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