CHEEC supported researchers investigate risks of lead exposure in Iowa’s drinking water

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CHEEC supported researchers investigate risks of lead exposure in Iowa’s drinking water

November 4, 2020

Researchers from University of Iowa  College of Engineering and Virginia Tech University Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, with support from the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC), estimate that over 65,000 Iowans are at risk from drinking water lead above the U.S. EPA action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) each year.

The United States (U.S.) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that no level of lead exposure is safe for children. The toxic effects of lead are well known, and elevated blood lead levels (BLLs) are linked to adverse health and developmental effects especially in young children.

“Historically, drinking water was not considered a significant source of childhood lead exposure. However, more recently, since lead contaminated water has been linked to public health crises in Washington, DC and Flint, researchers have started to look more closely at potential exposure from drinking water.  The EPA now estimates that drinking water can contribute about 20% of a person’s lead exposure and 40% to 60% for formula-fed infants,” said Drew Latta, a research scientist in IIHR-Hydrosciences and Engineering and co-author. “Amina Grant’s study examines lead exposure in Iowa, a state that is generally not considered to have significant drinking-water lead issues nor lead-in-water crises.”

The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, reviewed 166,554 samples taken over 29 years for Lead and Copper Rule compliance data in Iowa and developed a new approach for estimating the number of consumers at risk.

 “In our study, we estimated that about 65,000 Iowans (or 2%) of those drinking community-supplied water are at risk each year of drinking water with more than the EPA’s action level of 15 ppb. We found that over a quarter (26% or 738,000) of customers were at risk for drinking elevated lead levels, when we used the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of 1 ppb for school water fountains,” said Amina Grant, Ph.D. candidate in civil and environmental engineering and the study’s lead investigator.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends reducing or eliminating all sources of lead before exposure as the most reliable and cost effective measure to protect the public. The researchers state that there are an estimated 160,000 lead service lines in Iowa.

“This study raises concerns about the severity of baseline lead concentrations in drinking water nationwide,” said Michelle Scherer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-author. “The EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule doesn’t provide enough information on lead concentrations in homes.   Our analysis shows that there is a critical need for consumer-centric policies and programs like in-home tap sampling that provide more direct protection for consumers.”

 “CHEEC is happy to support lead testing in Iowa’s communities and schools,” said David Cwiertny, CHEEC’s Director.  “CHEEC also provides free lead testing for Iowa elementary schools with older drinking water infrastructure through its Grants to School Program.” 

Get the Lead Out documents.

Get the Lead Out Flyer

EST Publication

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CHEEC is part of the University of Iowa Office of the Vice President for Research, which provides researchers and scholars with resources, guidance, and inspiration to secure funding, collaborate, innovate, and forge frontiers of discovery that benefit everyone. More at, and on Twitter: @DaretoDiscover

Media Note: Media interested in interviewing the study’s researchers or arranging to shoot photos should contact Strategic Communications Director Stephen Pradarelli in the Office of the Vice President for Research at 319-384-1282 or