UNC Gillings School, RTI International to test for lead in drinking water at 300 Wake County households with young children

February 19, 2018

Private wells used for household drinking water are not routinely monitored for lead, which may put young children at risk for lead poisoning. This poisoning can damage the nervous system and cause developmental delays and lower IQ, among a variety of other health problems.

Dr. Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson

Dr. Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and RTI International are partnering to offer free water and child blood lead tests for up to 300 Wake County, North Carolina, households using private wells for drinking water. Additional households can enroll in the study through the end of May 2018. (Details are at the bottom of this post.)

“As a mother of five sons and a survivor of lead poisoning, I believe it is critical for people to know that their water is safe from lead,” said Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, PhD, associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School and RTI University Scholar. “The goal of this study is to ensure that households using private wells have access to the highest possible quality drinking water.”

In 2017, RTI spearheaded a study called Clean Water for Carolina Kids, which evaluated lead in drinking water at childcare centers and schools around N.C. The study provided free testing, along with technical support, to improve water quality at childcare centers and schools using the public water supply.

“Preliminary results show at least low, but still detectable, levels of lead in drinking water in many of the tested buildings,” said Jennifer Hoponick Redmon, MSES, MPA, senior environmental health scientist at RTI and co-project director of Clean Water for Carolina Kids. “As many children spend much of the week in school or childcare, the next question naturally is: What is the water quality for children once they get back home, and can we improve it?”

Households that receive water from either a public water supply or private well are not required to – and thus, often do not – test for lead. However, public water utilities do conduct testing at the drinking water treatment plant and throughout the water distribution system, and maintenance actions at the treatment plant may limit the corrosion of lead in piping on the way to homeowners’ taps. A recent study led by MacDonald Gibson found that, in Wake County, N.C., households using private wells are more likely to have higher levels of lead in their drinking water compared to households on a public water supply.

To further evaluate private wells and support homeowners in any needed water quality improvements, UNC and RTI researchers will conduct onsite visits and train homeowners on how to collect water samples. A UNC nurse also will collect a blood sample from one child age seven or younger at each study household. The water and blood samples will be sent to RTI’s Analytical Sciences Laboratory and analyzed for lead using United States Environmental Protection Agency methods.

“RTI uses advanced instrumentation to measure many hazardous substances, including lead at 0.1 part per billion, which is 30 times lower than what can be detected in most North Carolina city and county water treatment utilities,” said Keith Levine, PhD, director of RTI’s Analytical Sciences Laboratory and co-project director of Clean Water for Carolina Kids. “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.”

Test results will be shared with each household, as will any recommended actions, such as practicing clean water habits (e.g., using cold water for drinking or cooking, and flushing the tap first), installing drinking water filters and consulting their pediatrician.

“Through the Clean Water for Private Wells study, we hope to demonstrate the importance of routine lead monitoring and maintenance for private wells,” MacDonald Gibson said. “We also want to support parents and let them know that, if lead is detected in their drinking water, it can be addressed with simple, affordable solutions to keep family members safe.”

To enroll in this study, please call the Clean Water for Private Wells study hotline at (919) 843-5786 or email cleanwater@rti.org. To be eligible, participants must obtain drinking water from a private well and have a child age seven or younger. Participant results will be kept private and participants will receive a $75 gift card.


Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu