The water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, has focused the nation’s attention on water safety around the country and the problems that come with aging lead pipes. No doubt, you’re wondering “could this happen to me?” R. J. Kuhn Plumbing Heating & Cooling is committed to keeping you and your family safe. Using resources from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, several major U.S. water utilities, and the experts at the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors—National Association (PHCC), we’ve compiled answers to some of your top questions. For added peace of mind, we’re available to evaluate your plumbing system and to perform system upgrades.
What is lead?
Lead is a metal found naturally in the environment. It also has been widely used over the years in gasoline, house paint, and plumbing products. The amount of lead that is released into the environment each year has been greatly reduced by the use of unleaded gas (mid-1970s). Laws forbidding the use of lead in house paint (1978) and lead in plumbing solder (1986) – as well as reducing the lead content in plumbing products (2014) – have helped as well. Still, lead can be a problem, especially in older homes.
What are the health effects of too much lead?
If present, elevated levels of lead can cause serious health problems, especially for pregnant women and young children. For infants and children, exposure to high levels of lead in drinking water can result in delays in physical or mental development. Infants who consume mostly mixed formula can receive a greater percentage because of the large volume of water they consume relative to their body size. For adults, exposure to high levels of lead can result in kidney problems or high blood pressure. Although the main sources of exposure to lead are ingesting paint chips and inhaling dust, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 10 to 20 percent of human exposure to lead may come from drinking water.
What is the level of lead in public drinking water supplies?
In July of 1991, the EPA established an action level for lead in public drinking water at 15 micrograms per liter, which is the same as 15 parts per billion (ppb). Water suppliers must routinely test household tap water to check lead levels. If lead levels in the water are above the EPA action level and cannot be quickly corrected, the water supplier is required to notify homeowners and take steps to reduce lead levels in the drinking water.
Should I be concerned about lead if I use a private water source for drinking water?
Even with a private drinking water supply (e.g., well, spring, cistern), there may still be a concern about lead in your water. If you live in a structure that was built before 1986, then the plumbing may contain lead pipes, lead solder, or lead materials. The lead in these pipes can dissolve into your drinking water.
Is there lead in bottled drinking water?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has established a maximum contaminant level of five micrograms per liter for lead in bottled drinking water. Bottled water suppliers must routinely test their water supply for lead.
How does lead get into the water we drink?
Lead in drinking water typically results from the use of lead pipes in water systems or lead-based solder on water pipes. Water in the plumbing system can dissolve lead from pipes and solder. This is called leaching. Soft, corrosive, or acidic (low pH) water is more likely to cause leaching. Water left standing in the pipes over a long period of time also increases leaching. The longer the water stands in the pipes, the greater the possibility of lead being dissolved into the water. Stray electrical currents from improperly grounded electrical outlets or equipment also may increase the level of lead in drinking water. And pipes that carry drinking water from the source to homes can contribute lead to the drinking water, if the pipes were constructed or repaired using lead materials.
How can I test my water for lead?
Some water utilities will test your water for a fee. To make arrangements to have your water tested, call your water utility’s customer service department. Or, contact your local health department and request a list of certified commercial laboratories that can test for lead in drinking water. The cost typically ranges from $15 to $50 per sample. (Beware: Unscrupulous businesses have been caught using tests or selling filtering devices that have not been found to be effective. Use only approved laboratories for testing.)
Can I lower the lead in my water?
Yes, the amount of lead can be easily lowered in most cases. To reduce the amount of lead in water:
- Run the tap until water is cold to the touch before using it for drinking or cooking. This is especially important after the water has been standing in the pipes overnight or over many hours. (Saving the water for other purposes, such as plant watering, is a good conservation measure.)
- Use only cold tap water for cooking, drinking, or making a baby’s formula. Hot water is more likely to leach lead from pipes and solder.
- Check household plumbing for lead-based pipes or solder. A plumber can help.
- Clean and remove faucet aerators. Particles of lead can get trapped in the aerator. It’s important to clean and remove the debris from time to time.
- Use only lead-free materials in all plumbing repairs or new faucets and pipes. Ask us to show you the label from any solder packaging being used. It should state that the solder is lead-free.
- Install a water filter. If you choose to do so, follow these three important suggestions:
- Choose one designed for the specific filtration desired, such as lead.
- Make sure the filter is approved by NSF International (formerly named the National Sanitation Foundation).
- Maintain the filter as directed by the manufacturer.
- Be informed of any work that could disturb a home’s lead service line. Work such as a water main replacement, lead service line repair, or replacement of the lead service line could disturb the lead service line.
Where can I find more information about lead in drinking water?
Here are some additional resources that provide more detailed information about drinking water requirements for lead and safe water practices:
Basic Information about Lead in Drinking Water (EPA): https://www.epa.gov/your-drinking-water/basic-information-about-lead-drinking-water
Protect Your Family from Exposures to Lead: How to Make Your Home Lead-safe (EPA): https://www.epa.gov/lead/protect-your-family-exposures-lead#homeleadsafe
Water Safety Tips (CDC): http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/tips/water.htm