Lead is one of the most commonly recognized and dangerous contaminants that affect drinking water. This colorless, tasteless, and odorless metal can leach from plumbing materials and the soil itself and end up in your tap water.
Lead in drinking water can be extremely harmful to human health, particularly for children. The only way to tell if your drinking water contains lead is to test for it. Here is what you need to know about lead in drinking water and how to test for lead in water at home.
- The best test for lead in water is a certified laboratory test to scan for lead and other toxic heavy metals.
- The EPA maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) for lead is 0 mg/L because there is no safe level of lead in drinking water.
- Lead exposure has severe effects on human health, particularly for developing children and pregnant women.
- There are still approximately 10 million homes in the U.S. supplied by lead service lines.
What Causes Lead in Water?
Lead is naturally found in low concentrations in natural sources of water. However, the primary sources of lead contamination are the decay of old lead plumbing materials and lead solder.
If your home has a lead service line, which was common in homes built before the 1980s, corrosion can release toxic metal into your drinking water. However, even without a lead service line, there are many other potential sources of lead.
Your home may have lead solder joining plumbing components, or brass fittings, which contain lead, in private well pumps or faucets. Your water supplier may also use lead service lines, which could contaminate your tap water before it reaches your home.
The amount of lead released by these sources will generally depend on the acidity and mineral content of the water itself. High acidity and concentrations of certain minerals tend to increase chemical reactions that corrode lead, releasing it into your drinking water.
Often construction or maintenance work may also cause more lead to be released from a lead service line. This is why it is important to pay attention to notifications from water suppliers in addition to testing your drinking water for lead.
What Are the Health Effects of Ingesting Lead in Water?
Lead exposure has disastrous effects on human health, particularly for children. Once it enters the human body it bioaccumulates over time causing broad-based health issues.
For adults with high exposure, the effects of lead poisoning include hypertension, gastrointestinal issues, kidney damage, reproductive issues, and even death.
For children, the effects are permanent and include damage to both the peripheral and central nervous system and even blood cells. This can cause learning disabilities, seizures, and behavioral issues, among many other consequences.
It is important to keep in mind that babies can be exposed to lead even before birth through high concentrations of lead in a mother’s body. Potential effects for pregnant women include premature birth and reduced growth of the fetus.
Even after this, breastfeeding or infant formula can expose young children even if they never directly drink tap water.
Are There Acceptable Lead Levels in Drinking Water?
There is no acceptable level of lead in drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is required by the Safe Drinking Water Act to determine the level of contaminants that can be present in drinking water without adverse health effects occurring.
As such, the EPA set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead at 0 mg/L because lead can harm an individual’s health even at low levels. The enforceable action level for lead in water delivered to public water system users is 15 µg/L as per the Lead And Copper Rule.
The CDC also has an action level if the concentration of lead in a child’s blood is 3.5 micrograms per deciliter or more, they recommend that public health action be initiated.
Should You Test Your Water for Lead?
Yes, you should test for lead since there is no safe level of lead in drinking water and you cannot see, taste, or smell lead dissolved in your water. Testing for lead should be done more frequently under the following circumstances:
- Your home was built before the 1986 SDWA lead plumbing ban
- If there may be lead solder or fixtures in your home plumbing system
- If your home’s water is supplied with lead service lines
- There are high-risk individuals, pregnant women, or infants living in the home
- You are moving into a new home and need to check the water quality
The only way to know for sure if there is lead in your tap water is by testing.
How To Test for Lead In Water
There are multiple home testing methods to identify lead in your water. We will cover four options that you can use right away.
Certified Laboratory Test
The best way to find out if your drinking water is contaminated with lead is to have a certified laboratory test your water for lead. This is more expensive than testing your water yourself, but it is the most accurate method for both city and private well water sources.
I recommend using the Freshnss Labs water test which scans for lead, copper, and several other heavy metals in your drinking water. You get a package that includes everything you need to properly collect and send your water samples to a certified lab. After analyzing the samples, the lab sends you a detailed report on the exact amount of lead detected, any health or plumbing risks, and the best treatment methods based on your test data.
Laboratory Water Test Kit
Analyzed in a certified laboratory
Includes detailed report with EPA benchmarking and safety concerns
How To Properly Collect A Water Sample
- Take the water sample from your primary drinking water faucet. You may need to clean the faucet’s screen first to ensure accurate results.
- Turn on your tap and let it run for 30 seconds to flush the system before collecting your sample. Alternatively, you can take the water sample immediately to test for the first draw.
- Wear clean rubber gloves if you have them available to avoid cross-contamination.
- Turn on the cold water supply and slowly fill the sample bottle so it does not overflow.
- Make sure the sample bottle is filled to the shoulder of the bottle and the vials all the way to the top.
- Then simply package the sample bottle as instructed and send them to the lab for analysis.
DIY Home Test Kit
A DIY home test kit is a cheaper way to test your water for lead, but also less accurate. With this method, you typically dip a test strip into a sample of your drinking water and leave it in the water for the amount of time stated in the instructions. Then, you take the test strip out of the water and let it sit for the time recommended in the directions.
After this, you will compare the strip to the color chart included in the instructions to get an idea of how much lead is in your water. If your water does have lead, you may want to get a more accurate test performed.
Check EPA Consumer Confidence Report
Another way you can find out if your water has lead in it is to check the EPA consumer confidence report for your water utility. You should receive a copy of this each year by July 1, as the EPA requires that all community water systems have this report prepared and delivered by this time each year. The test results will show if lead was detected in the water supply and at what level.
If you get your water from a municipal water supplier, you can also call them. The phone number should be listed on your monthly bill. Here is an example of what to say:
”Hello, I live at 123 Real Street and I am wondering if you can tell me if the water supply lines to my home are lead pipes? Additionally, do you offer lead testing for our drinking water?”
Check For Lead Pipes
Another thing you can do to help determine whether or not you are likely to have lead in your water is to check if you have lead pipes. You can do this by taking a coin and scraping a pipe.
If you find yourself removing a dull grey material that uncovers a shiny silver metal, you probably have lead pipes. Another method is to take a magnet, and if it does not stick, the plumbing maybe lead. Unfortunately, even if your home’s pipes are not lead, you could still have lead in your water because there may be a lead service line leading to your home.
You can follow the steps in the Protect Your Tap guide provided by the EPA. It will guide you through checking if your home has lead pipes or if you have lead service lines, and how to test for lead in water.
How To Know If You Have Lead Service Lines
The EPA, the Department Of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Labor recently came out with an initiative to accelerate lead service line replacement (LSLR). However, it is estimated that there are still nearly 10 million lead service lines in operation.
If you want to identify lead service lines, you could check with your local water supplier to see if they have this information. Alternatively, if your home was built in a year after 1986 and had a new water connection, you probably do not have lead service lines. However, if service started before 1986, you could have lead a service line.
Lastly, most states that still have significant exposure to lead service lines will provide a map outlining the pipes still in use. For example, here is the map for California.
What To Do If Your Home Tests Positive For Lead
There are several filtration methods you can use to remove lead from your water. The best treatment system will be a filter certified to NSF/ANSI 53 or NSF/ANSI 58 and have lead listed on the packaging as one of the contaminants that can be reduced.
A reverse osmosis (RO) system is an effective method for removing lead from your water and can remove up to 99.9% of the lead from your water. You can purchase a reverse osmosis filter in a point-of-use system or a whole-house system.
This method works by forcing water through a semi-permeable membrane which removes lead along with several other water contaminants leaving safe drinking water, although, for some contaminants, pre-treatment is necessary to avoid having to replace the filter very frequently.
These systems are often connected to a single fixture, such as your kitchen sink, and will filter water for that fixture. However, if needed, a whole house reverse osmosis system can be installed, removing lead from your entire water supply.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, activated carbon is “a viable treatment technology” for removing lead from your water supply or just your drinking water. Activated carbon works by absorption. The carbon traps the contaminants and allows the water particles to pass through.
There are many systems that use activated carbon. You could choose a countertop system, a water pitcher, or even a whole-house system.
Water distilling is also an option for lead removal. It is actually one of the older treatment methods for removing lead from water. But, it can effectively remove lead from your water along with many other contaminants.
Water distillation works through evaporation. The lead-contaminated water is heated until it turns to steam, and since the lead molecules do not evaporate when the steam condenses to form water, it no longer contains lead.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you know if water is contaminated with lead?
You will need to have your water lab tested to know for sure whether or not it is contaminated with lead. Even if you know your home’s water system does not have lead pipes, there could be lead service lines leading to your home.
Does boiling water remove lead?
No, boiling water will not remove lead from it. In fact, it could even increase the concentration of lead as some of the water evaporates.
Can I shower in lead-contaminated water?
Yes, showering should be safe even if the water contains lead over EPA’s action level because human skin does not absorb lead in water.