Beware of that tap water! GREG ODOGWU

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Fellow Nigerians, my heart is heavy because many of us do not know that the tap water we drink contains so much toxic materials that drinking it is like taking poison in instalments. And our government is so preoccupied with providing water that it disregards the critical issue of providing quality water. The sad news is that the metallic element known as lead is now so heavy in our tap water that many Nigerians today face deadly health risks. I am a living witness.

The tragedy of a developing nation like ours is that because of scarce resources and scant access to basic infrastructure, substandard goods are consumed without regard to standards. This is encapsulated in the saying that, “A beggar has no choice”. Give a beggar rotten food, and without even considering the health implication, the beggar gratefully grabs the grub and gobbles it.

When the world celebrated the World Water Day on Sunday, March 22, a fortnight ago, I wondered what message I should give to my dear readers, because there are many issues surrounding water. Then, suddenly, I got an intuition. A voice rang in my head, “Why don’t you share your testimony!”

Yes, I have a testimony, but an ominous one. Firsthand, I experienced that the water we consume in Nigeria is full of lead. Lead being a very dangerous contaminant, we cannot afford to overlook the danger we face in this matter.

I live in the part of Abuja where there is 24 hours supply of pipe-borne water. Last year, a friend of mine who is in the medical practice ran an overall check of my system, and one of the results showed that there is a dangerous level of lead in my body. He told me that it must be as a result of tap water. So, I stopped drinking tap water for almost a year, resorting to filtered water or bottled or sachet water. When he tested me again last month, the lead index had gone down. And I ask myself, perhaps there are thousands and millions of other Nigerians who are in the same situation, but are yet to realise this.

Lead can affect the human brain and nervous system and is most dangerous for fetuses, infants and children under six. Experts warn that “infants who are fed formula made with tap water from lead service pipes could be getting the highest amount of lead from drinking water because this is their main source of food.”

Symptoms for a young child with elevated lead exposure include shortened attention span, reduced IQ, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and behavioural problems. Adult symptoms include hypertension and kidney failure.

Typically, lead gets into your water after the water leaves the local treatment plant or your borehole/well. It could be in the government’s piping. It could also be in your own property’s pipe or the solder in your home’s own plumbing. The most common cause is corrosion, a reaction between the water and the lead pipes or solder. Dissolved oxygen, low pH (acidity) and low mineral content in water are common causes of corrosion.

Lead-contaminated drinking water is most often a problem in houses that are either very old or very new. Up through the early 1900’s, it was common practice in most parts of the world to use lead pipes for interior plumbing. Also, lead piping was often used for the service connections that join residences to public water supplies. (This practice ended only recently in some localities.)

Plumbing installed before 1930 is most likely to contain lead. Copper pipes have replaced lead pipes in most residential plumbing. However, the use of lead solder with copper pipes is widespread. Experts regard this lead solder as the major cause of lead contamination of household water in most homes today. New brass faucets (taps) and fittings can also leach lead, even though they are “lead-free.”

In Nigeria, ageing pipes in public water works contain lead. However, scientific also data indicate that the newer the home, the greater the risk of lead contamination. In domestic setting, lead levels decrease as building ages. This is because, as time passes, mineral deposits form a coating on the inside of the pipes (if the water is not corrosive). This coating insulates the water from the solder. But, during the first five years (before the coating forms) water is in direct contact with the lead. More likely than not, water in buildings less than five years old has high levels of lead contamination.

The danger is that lead leaves no warning signal, since you cannot see, taste, or smell lead dissolved in water. So, testing is the only sure way of telling whether or not there are harmful quantities of lead in your drinking water. In my case I found out by testing my body. But we should all start testing our water for lead, because unlike what obtains in most developed countries, our government does not do that.

You should be particularly suspicious if your home has lead pipes (lead is a dull gray metal that is soft enough to be easily scratched with a house key), if you see signs of corrosion – frequent leaks, rust-colored water, stained dishes or laundry, or if your non-plastic plumbing is less than five years old.

In a study published in 2012 by Nigerian chemists, Ehi-Eromosele C.O., and Okiei W.O., entitled, “Heavy Metal Assessment of Ground, Surface and Tap Water Samples in Lagos Metropolis Using Anodic Stripping Voltammetry”, lead hazard was identified in Lagos State.

The abstract reads in part: “The levels of heavy metal contamination in surface, ground and tap waters collected in some part of Lagos metropolis were determined using Differential Pulse Anodic Stripping Voltammetry (DPASV). The samples were analysed for their contents of lead, copper and cadmium and were also compared with the WHO (2008) specified contaminant levels for drinking water. The results obtained showed that all the well water and borehole water samples investigated contain high concentration of these heavy metals. Lead and cadmium concentrations were found to be above the WHO maximum acceptable concentration (MAC).”

As a country we lack maintenance culture. Abuja’s pipes are corroded and lead-laden, but from all indication the authorities are not planning on replacing them. Worse still, they are not telling the consumers about the lead content they take in on a daily basis.

It is high time we adopted Water Safety and Quality laws. The best safety system I came across is that of the USA. The 1996 amendment to the country’s Federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires Community Water systems to prepare and distribute an annual Consumer Confidence Report which is a report on the quality of drinking water. The CCR must be distributed to water customers and consumers.

A CCR must contain: Water system information; Sources of the drinking water; Definitions such as Maximum Contaminant Level, Maximum Contaminant Level Goal and if needed Treatment Technique and Action Level; Detected Contaminants; Compliance with other drinking water regulations; and Required educational information. In all, the CCR allows the consumer to make an informed choice about the water with which they eat, drink, bathe and prepare food.

What I find interesting is that many Americans have their own personal boreholes. According to statistics, one in seven Americans uses water from personal wells and boreholes. Also, according to a 2012 study, bottled water consumption in the US increased by 6.7 per cent from the previous year. And I wonder, is this trend as a result of the CCR they receive alerting them to the lead content of pipe-borne water

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