Lead in drinking water can progress into serious illness and even death if left unchecked. Although the country has made great strides in cleaning up lead service lines, there is still a significant risk to communities.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that up to 20% of our exposure to lead in the United States comes from tap water. That’s why it’s critical to understand the basics of lead in water, how to test for it, and how to avoid it.
- Lead is a toxic metal that can cause serious health problems, especially in children.
- Lead enters drinking water through the corrosion of lead pipes, solder, fixtures, and other plumbing materials.
- The EPA maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) for lead in water is 0 ppb because there is no safe level of lead exposure.
- About 10 million homes in the United States have lead service lines, which connect homes to the water main.
- The best method to test for lead in drinking water is with a certified lab test kit to detect the exact lead levels.
How Does Lead Get Into Water?
Lead can find its way into our water supply through the corrosion of plumbing materials in our homes. This chemical reaction can occur in lead service lines, faucets, lead solder, or spigots. When these materials corrode, the metal can dissolve and enter the water supply as lead particles.
The rate of corrosion is dependent on the following factors:
- The acidity of the water
- The mineral content of the water
- Water temperature
- How much lead is present in the plumbing materials
- How long the water is in contact with these materials
- Whether or not your pipes have protective coatings
Water utility providers sometimes add phosphate to water supplies for corrosion control. They act as corrosion inhibitors to prevent the leaching of metals from lead and copper throughout the distribution system.
Negative Health Effects Of Lead In Water
There are many negative effects associated with drinking lead-contaminated water, and in some cases, lead consumption can be the catalyst for serious illness or disease.
Children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning because their bodies are still developing. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) excessive lead exposure, or lead poisoning, can lead to neurological damage or even death.
Side effects are not always immediate. Some of the most damaging health effects are discovered later in life. Some negative downstream effects on children can include:
- Learning and behavioral problems
- Lower IQ
- Stunted growth
- Hearing problems
Additionally, the effects of lead exposure on pregnant women can include premature birth and stunted growth of the fetus. Even after childbirth, making baby formula or breastfeeding with contaminated drinking water is detrimental.
Though some groups are more vulnerable than others, anyone exposed to high concentrations of lead can experience cardiovascular effects, reproductive issues, and reduced kidney functions.
Is There A Safe Level Of Lead In Drinking Water?
There is no level of lead in water that is safe for consumption due to the serious health effects it can cause. That doesn’t mean that our tap water is lead-free or even regulated to be lead-free.
The action level in place by the Lead and Copper Rule for lead in drinking water is 15 micrograms per liter (mg/L). If lead contamination levels in water exceed this, the water system is required to notify the public and you are advised to take action immediately.
Nonetheless, the EPA has a maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) for lead in drinking water of 0 mg/L because it is known to cause serious health effects even at very low levels.
The CDC uses a blood reference level of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter to identify children with elevated lead levels in their blood. If a child has higher concentrations in their blood, immediate action should be taken.
Signs Of Lead In Water
Unfortunately, there are no telltale signs for identifying lead contamination in your drinking water. Lead doesn’t have a distinctive taste or smell like chlorine, for example. The only way to know for sure is to test the water supply.
There are some indicators that may give you an idea of whether lead may be in your tap water. Frequent leaks or a change in the water’s color are good reasons to get your water tested. Homes built before lead-based plumbing materials were banned in 1986 are more likely to have lead water pipes. For households served by public water supplies, check with your water supplier whether your supply contains a lead service line.
How To Detect Lead In Drinking Water
Since there is no way to detect lead in water without proper testing, here are some additional ways to know if you are being exposed to lead. Besides testing, you can check consumer confidence reports (CCR), check your pipes, and contact your water supplier to get an indication if there is lead in your water supply.
Get Your Water Tested
Test kits for lead in water are available in either a DIY kit where you can collect a sample and test it at home, or as a lab test kit where the collected sample gets sent away for professional testing.
I recommend getting your water tested with the Freshnss Labs water test kit. The accuracy of a certified lab test kit is far greater than that of a DIY kit. When testing something as serious as lead, it is vital that the information you receive is comprehensive and accurate.
After you submit your sample to the lab, you will receive a report with the exact lead levels and the best treatment options to remove lead based on your test data.
Note that lead testing is especially critical with a private water supply because you are your own water utility.
Check the EPA’s Consumer Confidence Reports
The EPA requires consumer confidence reports (CCRs) produced by water suppliers to be made available to the general public. These reports contain useful information on the level of contaminants in your water including lead contamination levels.
The water quality reports are available online, simply search for your zip code to find your report. The CDC provides a helpful breakdown of how to read a CCR and what to look out for.
Check Your Pipes For Lead
As corrosion in pipes is the main cause of lead in water, it is a good idea to check whether your pipes are made of lead or not. If they are, it’s worth getting your pipes updated with a safer material.
To perform a quick test to determine if you have a lead service line to your home, use a key or coin to try and scratch the water service pipe. If the pipe is easy to scratch, it may be a lead pipe.
An additional test is to see if a magnet sticks to the pipe. Magnets will not attract lead or copper. If your pipe scratches easily and a magnet won’t stick it, is quite possibly a lead pipe and may need to be replaced.
Contact Your Water Supplier
Contacting your water supplier is a good way to get information regarding the quality of your drinking water. You will be able to find your water supplier’s contact information either online or on your water bill. Simply ask them if your home is supplied by a lead service line and if they offer water testing for lead.
How To Know If You Have Lead Service Lines
If you have a suspicion that you have a lead service line, it’s recommended to purchase a certified lead test kit. Alternatively, seek assistance from a licensed plumber to clarify the materials used for your home’s water supply. If through these measures you find your pipes are lead-based or lead-lined, it should be a pressing issue to have them replaced.
The Lead and Copper Rule underscores the replacement of lead-based materials in plumbing as a priority for safe drinking water. Fortunately, there is funding available for replacing lead service lines. Many states also offer interactive maps that display the current state of lead service line usage. For example, you can check the New York map here.
To help combat lead contamination in drinking water, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) reduced the maximum allowable lead content in plumbing to a weighted average of 0.25% calculated across the contact surfaces of pipes, fittings, and fixtures. This is what is classified as “lead free”.
Of course, if you have a private well, you will not have a service line and the best way to know if your household contains lead pipes is to test the water.
How To Reduce Exposure To Lead In Water
These tips will help reduce your exposure to lead in drinking water. Lead pipes are more likely to be used in homes built before 1986. If your water supply tests positive for lead, reducing exposure is vital to minimize the likelihood of adverse health outcomes. In this case, removing all lead sources is the optimal choice.
Using a water filtration system that is compliant with NSF/ANSI Standard 53 and NSF/ANSI Standard 58 is the recommended method to remove lead from drinking water. Standard 53 ensures that lead is removed along with over 50 other contaminants.
Standard 58 is in place to ensure reverse osmosis systems are able to reduce lead and total dissolved solids from drinking water. Before purchasing a filter, look for these NSF certifications for lead removal on the label.
Let Your Water Run
While it’s not the most environmentally friendly option, letting your water run helps reduce lead in your water by allowing stagnant water to be replaced by new water flowing through the pipes. To flush out any lead-contaminated water, you should let the water run for about 30-60 seconds.
However, if you know your service lines are lead-based, then run the water for 3-5 minutes before use. If you are concerned about water wastage, consider flushing water to do other tasks like washing dishes or bathing, before you start using the tap water for cooking or drinking.
Use Cold Tap Water
Since hot water dissolves lead within your water pipes faster, using only cold water will help to reduce lead in drinking water. While using cold water for cooking can take longer, it does decrease your risk of overexposure to lead. If you do need hot water, use cold water and heat it up with a different method.
Clean Your Faucet’s Screen
If your faucet was manufactured before 1986 it is important to regularly clean your faucet’s screen (also known as an aerator) to remove lead buildup. The screen may be contaminating your drinking water.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can boiling water remove lead?
Unlike other contaminants found in water like chlorine, boiling water does not reduce the level of lead in your water. It will actually increase the concentration of lead in water. Boiling water will reduce the amount of water but have no effect on the levels of lead.
How does lead in water affect the body?
At high levels, lead poisoning is a concern, which can lead to neurological effects, especially in children. Lead exposure can cause various health problems in children, including learning disabilities, attention problems, and behavioral problems. Lead exposure can also cause developmental delays, growth problems, and kidney damage.
Is it okay to shower in lead-contaminated water?
Yes, it is okay to bath and shower in water with lead in it. Lead is not absorbed through human skin so it is not a significant risk as apposed to ingesting it.