If you’re a Chatham County resident, you could pay the county’s Public Health department more than $100 to test your home’s well water for lead. But thanks to a current research study with the Gillings School of Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill, some residents could get tested for free.
The Gillings team is researching the relationship between lead in well water and high blood lead levels in children under seven years old. Jacqueline Gibson, the head researcher for the project, says it is the first U.S. study to examine lead levels in private well water and its effect on children.
And so far, the results are worth a second glance.
“We’ve actually found that the percentage of wells that have high lead in the area is not too different from what was observed in Flint [Mich.] during the water crisis,” Gibson said. “And [again,] these are private wells. They are not regulated municipal utilities.”
Back in 2014, city officials in Flint, Mich. changed the city’s water source to the Flint river, resulting in numerous water quality issues that made national headlines. One of the most notable fears during the water crisis was lead leaking from water pipes and possibly causing high levels of lead in children.
The Gillings study procedure is simple: each home’s well water and household dust are tested for lead, and a phlebotomist – Gibson calls her “the very best phlebotomist that you could ever find” – tests the child’s blood for lead.
She estimates that 15 to 20 Chatham County households have already been tested as part of the project, but the team hopes to test 300 Triangle-area household wells for lead contamination over the next six months.
Though the results are “very preliminary,” Gibson says that approximately one out of every four households tested so far has shown “elevated” water lead levels.
And the research team has detected lead in children’s blood levels, though no child’s blood-lead level has exceeded a threshold of 5 micrograms per deciliter set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. If tested lead levels ever reached that level, Gibson says the state health department would begin an investigation into the issue.
“What’s happened over the years is that the CDC keeps lowering its threshold,” she said. “A couple of decades ago it was 50 [micrograms per deciliter], and then they lowered it to 10, and now it’s five. Ideally, we just don’t want children exposed to lead of any sort.”
Elevated lead levels can lead to a permanent loss of IQ and educational setbacks in children.
In addition to UNC professors and students, the team includes an economist from Duke and a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania because, Gibson says, “childhood exposure to lead can increase the risk of behavioral problems and even juvenile delinquency.”
Chatham resident William Cummings considers himself “lucky” to have participated in a study pioneered jointly by UNC’s Institute for the Environment and Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering.
He received a test of his property’s well water about two months ago as part of the research, which he says revealed that his well water was “crystal clear.”
Cummings lives in Northwest Chatham, near the Chicken Bridge area near the Haw River and works in Pittsboro. He, like Gibson, recommends that residents have their well water tested for peace of mind.
Chatham County residents without young children, or those who would simply rather not participate in the study, still have options for getting their well water tested.
Anne Lowry, Chatham County’s environmental health director, says her staff has collected 79 samples for existing county wells so far this year. The county charges $150 for a full panel water sample well test, which analyzes water for inorganic and bacteriological material, as well as nitrate levels.
Chatham residents with at least one child under seven living in the household are eligible to participate in the study. Click this link or call (919) 843-5786 to learn more.