Many households in the area use private wells for their drinking water, but these are often not routinely tested for lead, increasing the risk of kids suffering from lead poisoning.
A new initiative from the nonprofit research institute RTI International and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is offering free water and child blood lead tests for 300 households in Wake County that have private wells.
“Private wells aren’t regulated, and research shows that very few people get their water tested,” said Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, RTI University Scholar and associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Exposure to lead can cause damage to the nervous system and result developmental delays and lower IQ in children. Densely populated neighborhoods have a greater risk of contamination of well water.
As part of the initiative, RTI and UNC researchers will visit homes with private wells to take a water sample and teach the owners how to collect their own samples. In addition, a UNC nurse will sample blood from one child in the household who is age seven or younger.
These samples will be evaluated at RTI’s Analytical Sciences Laboratory.
“RTI uses advanced instrumentation to measure many hazardous substances, including lead at 0.1 part per billion, 30 times lower than most North Carolina city and county water treatment utilities,” said Keith Levine, director of the lab and co-project director, said in a press release. “Our testing facility provides organizations with the ability to proactively identify lower levels of lead to keep water safe for children and the general public.”
After testing, researchers will share the results with each household and give recommendations for clean water habits.
“If we find lead, then what we will do is work with homeowners to figure out a solution,” Gibson said. “It may be as simple as flushing their tap for a period of time before drinking the water.”
The researchers might also recommend a household treatment device for the water, she explained.
A study at UNC recently found that private wells in Wake County are more likely to have higher levels of lead than those on a public water supply. Gibson noted that the public water facilities are required to test routinely to ensure lead and other contaminants are at safe levels.
“You can be really confident that if you water comes from the Raleigh public facilities department, you are extremely unlikely to have lead in your water,” she said.
RTI previously studied lead in drinking water at childcare centers through a study called Clean Water for Carolina in 2017, which provided free testing at these locations.