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Lead In Your Drinking Water
Actions you can take to reduce lead
in drinking water
|Health Threats From Lead
Too much lead in the human body can
cause serious damage to the brain, kidneys, nervous system, and red
You have the greatest risk, even with short term
- you are a young child, or
- you are pregnant.
|Sources of Lead in
Lead levels in your drinking water
are likely to be highest if:
- your home has faucets or fittings of brass which contains some
- your home or water system has lead pipes, or
- your home has copper pipes with solder, and
- the house is less than five years old, or
- you have naturally soft water, or
- water often sits in the pipes for several hours.
|Where can I get more information?
First contact your county or state
department of health or environment for information on local water
For more general information on lead, there are now two toll-free
- EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline 1-800-426-4791
- National Lead Information Center 1-800-LEAD-FYI
Q: Why is
lead a problem?
Although it has been used in numerous consumer products, lead is a toxic metal
now known to be harmful to human health if inhaled or ingested. Important
sources of lead exposure include: ambient air, soil and dust (both inside and
outside the home), food (which can be contaminated by lead in the air or in
food containers), and water (from the corrosion of plumbing). On average, it
is estimated that lead in drinking water contributes between 10 and 20 percent
of total lead exposure in young children. In the last few years, federal
controls on lead in gasoline have significantly reduced people's exposure to
lead. The degree of harm depends upon the level of exposure (from all
sources). Known effects of exposure to lead range from subtle biochemical
changes at low levels of exposure, to severe neurological and toxic effects or
even death at extremely high levels.
Corrosion: A dissolving and
wearing away of metal caused by a chemcial reaction (in this case,
between water and metal pipes, or between two different metals).
First Draw: The water that immediately comes out when a tap
is first opened.
Flush: To open a cold-water tap to clear out all the water
which may have been sitting for a long time in the pipes. In new
homes, to flush a system means to send large valumes of water gushing
through the unused pipes to remove loose particles of solder and flux.
(Sometimes this is not done correctly or at all).
Flux: A substance applied during soldering to facilitate the
flow of solder. Flux often contains lead and can, itself, be a source
Naturally soft water: Any water with low mineral content,
lacking the hardness minerals calcium and magnesium.
Public Water System: Any system that supplies water to 25 or
more people or has 15 or more service connections (buildings or
Service Connector: The pipe that carries tap water from the
public water main to a building. In the past these were often made of
Soft water: Any water that is not "hard." Water is
considered to be hard when it contains a large amount of dissolved
minerals, such as salts containing calcium or magnesium. You may be
familiar with hard water that interferes with the lathering ac tion of
Solder: A metallic compound used to seal joints in plumbing.
Until recently, most solder contained about 50 percent lead.
Q: Does lead
affect everyone equally?
A: Young children, infants and fetuses
appear to be particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning. A dose of lead that
would have little effect on an adult can have a big effect on a small body.
Also, growing children will more rapidly adsorb any lead they consume. A
child's mental and physical development can be irreversibly stunted by
over-exposure to lead. In infants, whose diet consists of liquids made with
water - such as baby formula - lead in drinking water makes up an even greater
proportion of total lead exposure (40 to 60 percent).
could lead get into my drinking water?
A: Typically, lead gets into your water
after the water leaves your local treatment plant or your well. That is, the
source of lead in your home's water is most likely pipe or solder in your
home's own plumbing. The most common cause is corrosion, a reaction between
the water and the lead pipes or solder. Dissolved oxygen, low pH (acidity) and
low mineral content in water are common causes of corrosion. All kinds of
water, however, may have high levels of lead. One factor that increases
corrosion is the practice of grounding electrical equipment (such as
telephones) to water pipes. Any electric current traveling through the ground
wire will accelerate the corrosion of lead in the pipes. (Nevertheless, wires
should not be removed from pipes unless a qualified electrician installs an
adequate alternative grounding system.)
Q: Does my
home's age make a difference?
A: Lead-contaminated drinking water is
most often a problem in houses that are either very old or very new. Up
through the early 1900's, it was common practice, in some areas of the
country, to use lead pipes for interior plumbing. Also, lead piping was often
used for the service connections that join residences to public water
supplies. (This practice ended only recently in some localities.) Plumbing
installed before 1930 is most likely to contain lead. Copper pipes have
replaced lead pipes in most residential plumbing. However, the use of lead
solder with copper pipes is widespread. Experts regard this lead solder as the
major cause of lead contamination of household water in U.S. homes today. New
brass faucets and fittings can also leach lead, even though they are
"lead-free." Scientific data indicate that the newer the home, the
greater the risk of lead contamination. Lead levels decrease as a building
ages. This is because, as time passes, mineral deposits form a coating on the
inside of the pipes (if the water is not corrosive). This coating insulates
the water from the solder. But, during the first five years (before the
coating forms) water is in direct contact with the lead. More likely than not,
water in buildings less than five years old has high levels of lead
Q: How can
I tell if my water contains too much lead?
A: You should have your water tested
for lead. Testing costs between $20 and $100. Since you cannot see, taste, or
smell lead dissolved in water, testing is the only sure way of telling whether
or not there are harmful quantities of lead in your drinking water. You should
be particularly suspicious if your home has lead pipes (lead is a dull gray
metal that is soft enough to be easily scratched with a house key'), if you
see signs of corrosion (frequent leaks, rust-colored water, stained dishes or
laundry, or if your non-plastic plumbing is less than five years old. Your
water supplier may have useful information, including whether or not the
service connector used in your home or area is made of lead. Testing is
especially important in high-rise buildings where flushing might not work.
Q: How do
I have my water tested?
A: Water samples from the tap will have
to be collected and sent to a qualified laboratory for analysis. Contact your
local water utility or your local health department for information and
assistance. In some instances, these authorities will test your tap water for
you, or they can refer you to a qualified laboratory. You may find a qualified
testing company under 'Laboratories" in the yellow pages of your
telephone directory. You should be sure that the lab you use has been approved
by your state or by EPA as being able to analyze drinking water samples for
lead contamination. To find out which labs are qualified, contact your state
or local department of the environment or health.
are the testing procedures?
A: Arrangements for sample collection
will vary. A few laboratories will send a trained technician to take the
samples; but in most cases, the lab will provide sample containers along with
instructions as to how you should draw your own tap-water samples. If you
collect the samples yourself, make sure you follow the lab's instructions
exactly. Otherwise, the results might not be reliable. Make sure that the
laboratory is following EPA's water sampling and analysis procedures. Be
certain to take a "first draw" and a "fully flushed"
Two organizations can help you decide which type of filter is best for you.
The National Sanitation Foundation, International (NSF), and independent
testing agency, evaluates and certifies the performance of filtering devices
to remove lead from drinking water. Generally, their seal of approval appears
on the device and product packaging. The Water Quality Association (WQA) is an
independent, not-for-profit organization that represents firms and individuals
who produce and sell equipment and services which improves the quality of
drinking water. WQA's water quality specialists can provide advice on
treatment units for specific uses at home or business.
For additional information regarding the certification program, contact NSF
at (313) 769-8010, or WQA at (630) 505-0161, ext. 270. You can purchase
bottled water for home and office consumption. (Bottled water sold in
interstate commerce is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Water
that is bottled and sold within a state is under state regulation. EPA does
not regulate bottled water.) When repairing or installing new plumbing in old
homes, instruct, in writing, any plumber you hire to use only lead-free
materials. When building a new home, be sure lead-free materials are used.
Before you move into a newly built home, remove all strainers from faucets and
flush the water for at least 15 minutes to remove loose solder or flux debris
from the plumbing. Occasionally, check the strainers and remove any later
accumulation of loose material.
about lead in sources other that drinking water?
A: As mentioned above, drinking water
is estimated to contribute only 10 to 20 percent of the total lead exposure in
young children. Ask your local health department or call EPA for more
information on other sources of exposure to lead. A few general precautions
can help prevent contact with lead in and around your home:
- Avoid removing paint in the home unless you are sure it contains no
lead. Lead paint should only be removed by someone who knows how to
protect you from lead paint dust. However, by washing floors, window
sills, carpets, upholstery and any objects children put in their mouths,
you can get rid of this source of lead.
- Make sure children wash their hands after playing outside in the dirt or
- Never store food in open cans, Keep it in glass plastic or stainless
steel containers. Use glazed pottery only for display if you don't know
whether it contains lead.
- If you work around lead, don't bring it home. Shower and change clothes
at work and wash your work clothes separately.
there a lot of types of treatment devices that would work?
A: There are many devices which are
certified for effective lead reduction, but devices that are not designed to
remove lead will not work. It is suggested that you follow the recommendations
below before purchasing any device:
- Avoid being misled by false claims and scare tactics. Be wary of
"free" water testing that is provided by the salesperson to
determine your water quality; many tests are inaccurate or misleading.
Research the reputation and legitimacy of the company or sales
- Avoid signing contracts or binding agreements for "onetime offers
or for those that place a lien on your home. Be very careful about giving
credit card information over the phone. Check into any offers that involve
prizes or sweepstakes winnings.
- As suggested above, verify the claims of manufacturers by contacting the
National Sanitation Foundation International the Water Quality
Q: What is
the government doing about the problem of lead in household water?
A: There are two major governmental
actions to reduce your exposure to lead:
- Under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA set the action
level for lead in drinking water at 15 ppb. This means utilities must
ensure that water from the customer's tap does not exceed this level in at
least 90 percent of the homes sampled. If water from the tap does exceed
this limit, then the utility must take certain steps to correct the
problem. Utilities must also notify citizens of all violations of the
- In June 1986, President Reagan signed amendments to the Safe Drinking
Water Act. These amendments require the use of "lead-free" pipe,
solder, and flux in the installation or repair of any public water system,
or any plumbing in a residential or non-residential facility connected to
a public water system.
Under the provisions of these amendments, solders and flux will be
considered "lead-free" when they contain not more than 0.2
percent lead. (In the past, solder normally contained about 50 percent
lead.) Pipes and fittings will be considered "lead-free" when
they contain not more than 8.0 percent lead.
These requirements went into effect in June 1986. The law gave state
governments until June 1988 to implement and enforce these new
limitations. Although the states have banned all use of lead materials in
drinking water systems, such bans do not eliminate lead contamination
within existing plumbing. Also, in enforcing the ban, some states have
continued to find illegally used lead solder in new plumbing
installations. While responsible plumbers always observe the ban, this
suggests that some plumbing installations or repairs using lead solder may
be escaping detection by the limited number of enforcement personnel.
(flushed sample will indicate the effectiveness of flushing the tap before
using the water.)
much lead is too much?
A: Federal standards initially limited
the amount of lead in water to 50 parts per billion ppb). In light of new
health and exposure data, EPA has set an action level of 15 ppb. If tests show
that the level of lead in your household water is in the area of 15 ppb or
higher, it is advisable - especially if there are young children in the home -
to reduce the lead level in your tap water as much as possible. (EPA estimates
that more than 40 million U.S. residents use water that can contain lead in
excess of 15 ppb.) Note: One ppb is equal to 1.0 microgram per liter (µg/1)
or 0.001 milligram per liter (mg/1).
Q: How can
I reduce my exposure?
A: If your
drinking water is contaminated with lead-or until you find out for sure-there
are several things you can do to minimize your exposure. Two of these actions
should be taken right away by everyone who has, or suspects, a problem. The
advisability of other actions listed here will depend upon your particular
- The first step is to refrain from consuming water that has been in
contact with your home's plumbing for more than six hours, such as
overnight or during your work day. Before using water for drinking or
cooking, "flush" the cold water faucet by allowing the water to
run until you can feel that the water has become as cold as it will get.
You must do this for each drinking water faucet-taking a shower will not
flush your kitchen tap. Buildings built prior to about 1930 may have
service connectors made of lead. Letting the water run for an extra 15
seconds after it cools should also flush this service connector. Flushing
is important because the longer water is exposed to lead pipes or lead
solder, the greater the possible lead contamination. (The water that comes
out after flushing will not have been in extended contact with lead pipes
Once you have flushed a tap, you might fill one or more bottles with
water and put them in the refrigerator for later use that day. (The water
that was flushed - usually one to two gallons-can be used for
non-consumption purposes such as washing dishes or clothes; it needn't be
Note: Flushing may prove ineffective in high-rise buildings that have
large-diameter supply pipes joined with lead solder.
- The second step is to never cook with or consume water from the
hot-water tap. Hot water dissolves more lead more quickly than cold water.
So, do not use water taken from the hot tap for cooking or drinking, and
especially not for making baby formula. (If you need hot water, draw water
from the cold tap and heat it on the stove.) Use only thoroughly flushed
water from the cold tap for any consumption.
- If you are served by a public water system (more than 219 million people
are) contact your supplier and ask whether or not the supply system
contains lead piping, and whether your water is corrosive. If either
answer is yes, ask what steps the supplier is taking to deal with the
problem of lead contamination. Drinking water can be treated at the plant
to make it less corrosive. Cities such as Boston and Seattle have
successfully done this for an annual cost of less than one dollar per
person. (Treatment to reduce corrosion will also save you and the water
supplier money by reducing damage to plumbing.) Water mains containing
lead pipes can be replaced, as well as those portions of lead service
connections that are under the jurisdiction of the supplier.
- If you own a well or another water source, you can treat the water to
make it less corrosive. Corrosion control devices for individual
households include calcite filters and other devices. Calcite filters
should be installed in the line between the water source and any lead
service connections or lead-soldered pipe. You might ask your health or
water department for assistance in finding these commercially, available
- Recently a number of cartridge type filtering devices became available
on the market. These devices use various types of filtering media,
including carbon, ion exchange resins, activated alumina and other
privately marketed products. Unless they have been certified as described
below, the effectiveness of these devices to reduce lead exposure at the
tap can vary greatly. It is highly recommended that before purchasing a
filter, you verify the claim made by the vendor. If you have bought a
filter, you should replace the filter periodically as specified by the
manufactuer. Failure to do so may result in exposure to high lead levels.
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