Protecting your household against lead in drinking water
What is lead and how are we exposed to it?
Lead is a common, naturally occurring metal found throughout the environment. Lead seldom occurs naturally in water supplies like rivers and lakes, and lead is rarely present in water coming from a treatment plant. Lead enters drinking water primarily as a result of corrosion or wearing away of materials in the water distribution system and household plumbing that contain lead. Despite concerns about drinking water, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes that “the greatest exposure to lead is swallowing or breathing in lead paint chips or dust.”
Is exposure to lead a health concern?
Lead is a concern because it is a toxic metal that can cause immediate effects at high doses and long term effects if it builds up in the body over many years. Lead can cause brain and kidney damage in addition to effects on the blood and vitamin D metabolism. Children are more vulnerable to lead because their bodies are smaller, and because they are still developing. Pregnant women and their unborn babies are also at higher risk for negative health effects associated with lead exposure. If you are concerned that you or a family member may have been exposed to lead, consult with your family doctor or pediatrician to receive a blood test for lead and learn more about the health effects associated with exposure.
How is lead in drinking water regulated?
As of January 2014 revisions to the Safe Drinking Water Act made it illegal to install and pipe, or plumbing fitting or fixture, any solder, or any flux, during the installation or repair of a public water system or customer’s drinking water plumbing unless it meets the following definition of “lead-free”:
- not containing more than 0.2 percent lead when used with respect to solder and flux; and
- not more than a weighted average of 0.25 percent lead when used with respect to the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures.
Additionally, in 1991, the EPA published the Lead and Copper Rule. This rule requires that all public drinking water systems regularly test a sample of high-risk homes for lead at the tap. If more than 10 percent of homes tested have lead concentrations higher than the EPA “action level” of 15 parts per billion, individual water utilities are required to notify area residents via newspapers, radio, TV and other means. If the lead level remains consistently above the action level, the water supplier must take steps to control corrosion. The EPA is currently considering long term revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule.
Could I be at risk of exposure?
Older homes are more likely to have plumbing fixtures containing lead. Systems that deliver soft water, which has fewer dissolved minerals, and water that is more acidic and higher in dissolved oxygen can be more corrosive, increasing the risk of lead contamination. Watch for frequent leaks, discolored water and stained dishes or clothes, as these are all signs of corrosive water.
What can I do to prevent lead in my water?
If you’re concerned about lead in your drinking water, you can take several steps to limit possible exposure.
- Testing at the tap is the only way to measure the lead levels in your home or workplace. You can’t see, smell or taste lead in your water. If you choose to have your tap water tested, be sure to use a properly certified laboratory. Testing usually costs between $20 and $100. To find a state certified laboratory, contact a state certification officer.
- Flush your tap water. Flushing the tap is particularly important when the faucet has gone unused for more than a few hours. It takes time for lead to dissolve into water, so the first water drawn from the tap in the morning or after a long period of non-use can contain higher levels of lead. Flushing clears standing water from your plumbing and home service line to ensure you are getting drinking water from the main, where lead is rarely present. Let the water run from the tap until it is noticeably colder (this may take up to two minutes or more) before using it for cooking or drinking.
Remember, you must flush EACH drinking water faucet after long periods of non-use for this strategy to be effective. Use the flushed water for non-potable purposes such as watering plants or washing dishes.
Use only cold water for cooking or drinking. Lead leaches more easily into hot water than cold water.
Boiling water DOES NOT remove lead.
After moving into a new home, remove faucet strainers and rinse them to remove any debris. This should be done periodically to remove accumulated debris as well.
Make sure lead-free materials are used when building any new home.
Consider replacing lead service lines. Find out from a certified plumber if your home has lead service lines, because these pipes can be a source of lead at the tap. A service line is the pipe between the curb stop and discharge points in your home. It is typically under the control/ ownership of the homeowner.
Recent data suggests that replacing just part of the line can actually increase lead levels. If there is suspected lead lines within your home attempt to have all lines replaced.
Treatment and Removal Devices Some home treatment devices remove lead, but not all do. In order to make a well-informed and cost-effective decision, consider:
- checking with your water system or consumer confidence report (Water Quality Report) to learn about the amount of lead in your water, and
- identifying a device that has been independently certified to remove lead.
NSF International, the Water Quality Association, Underwriters Laboratories and CSA International all certify home treatment products for removal of contaminants. If a home treatment device is used, it is very important to follow the manufacturer's operation and maintenance instructions carefully in order to make sure the device functions properly.
Your water utility strives to provide safe and healthy water for your home. We all play a role in keeping it that way. Together, let’s get the lead out.
If we understand how lead gets into drinking water, we’re in a better position to protect our households.
This simple animation points out where the sources of lead typically are and what steps we can take to protect against exposure:
Where can I get more information?
EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline: 1-800-426-4791
National Lead Information Center: 1-800-LEAD-FYI