The Environmental Protection Agency has warned that lead levels in household tap water for nearly 32 million people in 130 cities may be too high.
But EPA Administrator William K. Reilly, at a news conference in Manhattan where initial test results were released Tuesday, cautioned, "I don't think its a crisis. It's a problem."The tests showed that household tap water in 130 of the nation's 660 large water systems may contain lead levels above 15 parts per billion, referrred to as "the action level."
Water systems with lead levels above the action level are required to attempt to reduce it through corrosion control measures over the next six years.
As part of the EPA's tests, water systems were required to target and test tap water in high risk homes. Those systems found to have high level are scheduled to being corrosion control to reduce lead levels Jan. 1, 1993.
Reilly suggested "at risk" households, especially those with children, pregnant women or nursing mothers, have their drinking water tested. He also offered suggestions to minimize risks.
"Although we believe the majority of American homes have safe lead levels in drinking water . . . we are concerned about the high level found in these homes," he said.
The presence of lead in drinking water can elevate blood-lead levels in infants and young children, delaying or interfering with their mental or physical development.
In adults, it can increase blood pressure and interfere with hearing. At very high levels, lead in the bloodstream can lead to anemia, kidney damage and mental retardation.
Lead in tap water comes primarily from plumbing within the home, from the wearing away of older pipes, solder and other plumbing materials.
The high risk homes were described as residences generally served by lines leading from the water main in the street to their building or those containing lead-interior piping, generally built before 1930, or copper piping with lead-soldered joints and elbows installed after 1982.
A second round of tests for these high risk homes was to be conducted by the end of the year.
Reilly suggested consumers have their water tested at the tap, such as the kitchen sink. Test costs range from about $20 to $40.
In the meantime, at-risk consumers should let water run several minutes before use. The EPA chief recommended flushing out the system in the morning after standing still overnight and filling a large container for use throughout the day to conserve water.