Columbia homeowners eligible for free lead testing

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COLUMBIA - Residents of older homes in Columbia could be eligible for free water testing for lead.

The My Water/My Community project provides water testing supplies to homeowners, collects test kits and analyzes samples for lead content, free of charge.

The program has distributed and collected an initial round of 50 testing kits. These kits will undergo analysis at Virginia Tech in the same lab where researchers analyzed the lead content of water samples from Flint, Michigan—the city that rose to national prominence when its public water supply was found to contain elevated lead levels.

"The water crisis in Flint really made everyone realize that lead in drinking water is still a big concern," said Sara Shipley Hiles, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Missouri and a leader of the testing program.

The risk of lead-contaminated drinking water is highest in homes built before 1986, when amendments to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act outlawed the use of lead pipes in public water systems.

"We're really interested in homes that are a bit on the older side in Columbia, and we're also very interested in working with lower-income households in Columbia, where homeowners perhaps haven't been able to replace their pipes and are at risk from lead contamination," Shipley Hiles said.

Shipley Hiles said homeowners interested in testing their water can sign up on the program's waitlist. 

When lead plumbing fixtures or pipes become corroded, the lead can contaminate drinking water. Lead can leach into water that sits in the corroded pipes before being dispensed.

Lead contamination cannot be detected by sight, smell or taste, so testing is the only way to determine drinking water's lead content.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, children are particularly vulnerable to lead contaminants in drinking water. Lead exposure can cause mental and nervous system impairment, hearing difficulties and anemia. 

Lead exposure can come from a variety of sources, including lead-based paints or contaminated air, soil or food. However, EPA studies suggest up to 20 percent of a person's total lead exposure comes from contaminated drinking water. For babies on a diet of mixed formula, 40 to 60 percent of lead exposure may come from lead presence in water.

In adults, elevated levels of lead in the bloodstream can cause cardiovascular, kidney and reproductive problems.

A 2015 report by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources monitored the lead levels of more than 1,600 water systems in the state. Of those water systems, fewer than 2 percent exhibited concerning lead levels.

According to DNR, most Missouri well water is hard, meaning it is saturated with minerals and less likely to absorb lead from water systems. Surface water is often treated, making it less corrosive to pipes and plumbing systems.

"We don't expect that Columbia's water is of terrible quality at all. That's not what we're expecting to find," Shipley Hiles said. "We're just hoping that people will get more information about the importance of clean water and learn how to protect themselves from lead exposure."

Maria Kalaitzandonakes, a program volunteer, said owners of homes built before 1940 and homes built before 1986 were targeted for the program.

"This program is really a great act of public service," Kalaitzandonakes said. "A lot of the people whose homes we tested said they'd wondered about their water for years, and now, they'll have clear answers."

For homeowners interested in being put on the waiting list to receive a free lead testing kit, visit My Water/My Community's sign-up site

Shipley Hiles said the program may be extended beyond the initial 50 test kits, and homeowners on the waitlist will be the first ones contacted to receive testing services.