Photograph of a lead water pipe providing water service to a home in New York (C) Daniel Friedman Lead in Drinking Water
How to Reduce Lead Contamination in Drinking Water
     

  • LEAD IN DRINKING WATER, HOW to REDUCE - CONTENTS: What to do about lead in drinking water - Drinking water as a lead poisoning source. This article describes the sources of lead in drinking water, the health effects of lead in water, and steps you can take to reduce exposure to lead in water or to remove lead from drinking water.
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How to reduce the levels of lead in drinking water:

This article explains simple steps you can take to reduce exposure to lead in drinking water; new EPA Standard for lead and copper in drinking water, and requirements placed on community water suppliers. Links to Lead Testing Services are also provided.

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What to Do About Lead in Drinking Water

Lead water pipe (C) Daniel Friedman

You can spot the lead water supply piping in our photo at left. The right-hand lead water pipe is thicker than the copper water pipe in left side of the photo, and you can see the lead pipe wipe joint as well.

Article Contents

[Click to enlarge any image] More photos of lead water supply (and drain) piping are at LEAD PIPES in BUILDINGS.

Just how serious is lead contamination in private or public water supplies? It depends in part on where you live. In June 2010 the New York Times, citing Reuters reported:

Health workers have set up emergency treatment centers in northern Nigeria for scores of children suffering from lead poisoning and are racing to contain contamination that has already killed more than 160 people.

High levels of lead have contaminated water supplies in at least six villages in Zamfara State, close to where residents were illegally mining for gold. More than 350 cases have been reported over the past few months, and 111 of the dead are children, many younger than 5. The Dutch arm of Doctors Without Borders has brought in drugs to treat villagers found to have high levels of lead in their blood.

Lead Hazard Warning: consumption or absorption of lead into the human body is hazardous, particularly for children but in fact for anyone. [1] & [3-21]. And at least one correspondent has expressed the view that there is no level of lead exposure for which they have not found an adverse effect. [22]

Watch out for devices sold to reduce lead in drinking water but that do not work. The U.S. EPA recommends that you should verify the lead-reduction claims of device manufacturers by checking the NSF International or the Water Quality Association.

Related Articles on lead hazards and citations of authorities on lead hazards, testing, and remediation are at REFERENCES.

In the U.S. lead levels in public water supplies has been dropping since passage of the 1974-2004 Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, and public water supplies are much less likely to be a lead hazard source. But in-building sources of lead in water may remain.

In November 2010 the New York Times reported that in 2009 only 5.4% of samples had elevated lead, but in 2010 tests of 222 water samples found lead from 16-30 ppb in 14% of the samples. Although at these low levels the city did not consider the lead a clear health hazard, the city advised residents to run water for "at least 30 seconds" before drinking or cooking with it. A similar advisory was issued in 2005.

Watch out: the length of time needed to run water to flush out high-lead-level water that has been sitting in piping overnight depends on the total length of pipe between your tap and the street as well as use by other building occupants. If you run water at a tap until it is cold you have most likely successfully flushed the lines. This same principle applies to private residences.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and various U.S. municipal water suppliers are concerned about lead in drinking water. As late as 1961 major cities such as New York were still installing lead water mains piping.

In 1992, as a result of legislation written in Congress (the U.S. Federal Safe Drinking Water Act), a new US EPA standard for lead and copper became effective. This standard is intended to help communities around the nation reduce their exposure to lead/copper in drinking water, and there by, lower their exposure to lead/copper from all sources, including air, lead based paint, soil and dust. Lead paint is the main source of lead poisoning; however, lead contamination from water can contribute 10 to 20 percent of a person's exposure.

In 1992, more than 60,000 public water suppliers throughout the U.S. tested various homes they served for lead/copper at household taps.

In-building sources of lead in water: Although water supplied from your water treatment plant may be free from lead or copper*, contamination from your piping system may cause lead/copper to dissolve (leach) into your water supply if:

  • You have a lead service line connecting your home to the water main in the street; and/or
  • Your home has lead water supply pipes; and/or
  • You have lead containing soldered joints in your copper supply pipes (installed from 1983-86); and/or
  • You have plumbing fixtures containing lead.
  • Your building has brass water supply pipes - some brass contains lead
  • In rare cases some lead leaching may take place from piping in the street if it is a low flow area, i.e.; dead end streets.

EPA Lead limit: Although most homes have very low levels of lead in their drinking water, some homes in some communities have lead levels above the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb), or 0.015 milligrams of lead per liter of water (mgL).

Under Federal Law water suppliers are required to have a program in place to minimize lead in drinking water by January 1, 1996. This program includes corrosion control treatment, source water treatment, and public education. We are also required to replace each lead service line that we control if the line contributes to lead concentrations of 15 ppb or more after we have completed the comprehensive treatment program. If you have any questions about how the requirements of the lead regulations are being carried out, call your local water department or health department.

A Brief History of Lead Exposure Level Standards

Gilbert & Weiss cite the history of the U.S. CDC's position on the acceptable levels of lead in children's blood levels as we summarize below:[23]

Acceptable Childhood Blood Levels - U.S. CDC & Other Agencies

Year Published & Agency Blood Level in ug/dl
U.S. CDC - 1960 60
U.S. CDC - 1973 40
U.S. CDC - 1975 30
U.S. CDC - 1985 25
WHO - 1986 20
U.S. EPA - 1986 15
U.S. CDC - 1990-1991 10
U.S. CDC - 2006 ??  
   

Notes:

1. ug/dl = micrograms of lead per decaliter of blood

2. OPINION: in general authorities argue that there is no level below which it can be demonstrated that lead exposure is not hazardous. [23]

3. Table quoted from Steven G. Gilbert & Bernard Weiss, "A rationale for lowering the blood lead action level from 10 to 2 μg/dL", NeuroToxicology, Volume 27, Issue 5, September 2006 [23]

Health Effects of Lead Poisoning and Lead in Drinking Water

Lead is a common, natural, and often useful metal found throughout the environment in lead-based paint. air, soil, household dust, food, certain types of pottery porcelain pewter, and water.

Lead can pose a significant risk to your health if too much of it enters your body. Lead builds up in the body over many years and can cause damage to the brain, red blood cells, and kidneys. The greatest risk is to young children and pregnant women. Amounts of lead that won't hurt adults can slow down normal mental and physical development of growing bodies. In addition, a child at play often comes into contact with sources of lead contamination - like dirt and dust - that rarely affect an adult. It is important to wash children's hands and toys often, and to try to make sure they only put food in their mouths.

Lead in Drinking Water as a source of lead poisoning

  1. Lead in drinking water, although rarely the sole cause of lead poisoning, can significantly increase a person's total lead exposure, particularly the exposure of infants who drink baby formulas and concentrated juices that are mixed with water. The EPA estimates that drinking water can make up 20 percent or more of a person's total exposure to lead.
  2. Lead is unusual among drinking water contaminants in that it seldom occurs naturally in water supplies like rivers and lakes. Lead enters drinking water primarily as a result of the corrosion, or wearing away, of materials containing lead in the water distribution system and household plumbing. These materials include lead-based solder used to join copper pipe, brass and chrome plated brass faucets, and in some cases, pipes made of lead that connect your house to the water main (service lines).

    In 1986, Congress banned the use of lead solder containing greater than 0.2% lead and restricted the lead content of faucets, pipes; and other plumbing materials to 8.0%.
  3. When water stands in lead pipes or plumbing systems containing lead for several hours or more, the lead may dissolve into your drinking water. This means the first water drawn from the tap in the morning or later in the afternoon after returning from work or school can contain fairly high levels of lead.

Steps You Can Take in the Home to Reduce Exposure to Lead in Drinking Water

Who is Responsible for Making Drinking Water Safe?

The answer depends on the answer to "Is My Water Supply Public (regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act) or Private (responsibility of the homeowner)?"

Definition of a public water system (PWSs): a public water supply system, or "community water supply" or "municipal water supply" is one that has at least 15 service connections or serves at least 25 people per day for 60 days (or more) during the year. Any such system is defined as a "community water system" or in our words, a public water supply and is regulated by federal law. The community government, typically its water department and health departments are responsible for compliance with federal law regulating safe drinking water, including both regular testing and if necessary, treatment of the water supply. The type of water treatment required depends on the water source and water quality.

Occupants of homes served by municipal water supply in the U.S. are receiving water that is required by law to be regular tested for a number of contaminants, including lead. But even if the supplied water and its delivery system are acceptable, in-building piping can be a source of lead contamination, especially for buildings whose piping contain lead or lead solder.

Some cities such as New York City include phosphoric acid to the water supply to help form an oxide coating inside piping to reduce the rate of lead flowing through piping. But water sitting in piping during times of little or no use may still absorb some lead if it's present in the system.

Definition of a non-community or private water system: a private water supply system is smaller in size than the definition above, or serves people for less than 60 days per year. The owners of a private water supply system are responsible for assuring that the water provided by that system is safe to drink. While private water supply systems may not be regulated by federal law, local village, town, state, or county health departments and regulations may indeed apply and may set standards for acceptable drinking water for private wells in their community.

The EPA defines two types of non-community water supply systems: (Quoting from the EPA's Drinking Water Treatment)

  • Non-Transient Non-Community Water System (there are approximately 20,000) - A noncommunity water system that serves the same people more than six months per year, but not year-round, for example, a school with its own water supply is considered a non-transient system.
  • Transient non-community water system (there are approximately 89,000) - A non-community water system that serves the public but not the same individuals for more than six months, for example, a rest area or campground may be considered a transient water system.

Owners of private wells (serving less than 15 connections or 25 people) are responsible for assuring that their well water is safe. The EPA Recommends (Drinking Water Standards):

People with private wells are responsible f or making sure that their own drinking water is safe. Some states do set standards for private w ells, so well owners should c heck their state requirements. U S EPA recommends testing your water once per year to see if it meets federal and state standards. Call the EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426- 4791 or see the US EPA Safewater home page at www.epa.gov/safewater/privatewells to find out how to get a list of certified testing labs in your state.

List of Steps to Take to Reduce Exposure to Lead in Drinking Water

  1. Test your water supply: Despite our [the local municipal water authority] best efforts mentioned earlier to control water corrosivity and remove lead from the water supply, lead levels in some homes or buildings can be high. To find out whether you need to take action in your own home, have your drinking water tested to determine if it contains excessive concentrations of lead. Testing the water is essential because you cannot see, taste, or smell lead in drinking water.

    Some local water test laboratories that can provide this information. For more information on having your water tested, please call your health department or water department. Some cities may offer free lead tests. New York City residents can take advantage of a free lead-in-water test kit. See http://nyc.gov/html/dep/html/drinking_water/lead_test_kit.shtml or in New York Cit call 311 to ask for a free lead testing kit.

    Watch out: At LEAD FILTERS for WATER we note that The U.S. EPA warns against obtaining free lead testing kits from companies selling lead filters.

    Watch out: at LEAD LEACHING WARNINGS we report research that found low pH water as a source of corrosion that may leach lead into the building water supply from lead-containing brass water piping fittings (such as are used on PEX water piping systemns) as well as from brass water supply piping or brass faucet components.
    See DEZINCIFICATION WATER TESTS for methods to detect these conditions.
  2. Check the pH of your well water. NSF International advises the following:

    "If you have a private well and have high lead levels, the problem could be due to low pH. When pH levels drop below 7.0, water becomes acidic which can cause lead to leach from plumbing fixtures. Acid neutralizing systems are generally used to correct this situation. By adding a chemical like soda ash to the water to boost pH above 7.0, the system can help reduce both lead and copper leaching attributable to low pH." - NSF cited at the end of this article.
  3. Lead in water action level: If a water test indicates that the drinking water drawn from a tap in your home contains lead above 15 ppb, then you should take the following precautions:
    1. Flush in-building water supply pipes: Let the water run from the tap before using it for drinking or cooking any time the water in a faucet has gone unused for more than six hours. The longer water resides in your home's plumbing the more lead it may contain. Flushing the tap means running the cold water faucet until the water gets noticeably colder, usually about 15-30 seconds.

      If your house has a lead service line to the water main, you may have to flush the water for a longer time, perhaps one minute before drinking. Although toilet flushing or showering flushes water through a portion of your home's plumbing system, you still need to flush the water in each faucet before using it for drinking or cooking.

      Flushing tap water is a simple and inexpensive measure you can take to protect your family's health. It usually uses less than one or two gallons of water and costs less than .42 cents per month. To conserve water, fill a couple of bottles for drinking water after flushing the tap, and whenever possible use the first-flush water to wash the dishes or water the plants.

      If you live in a high-rise building, letting the water flow before using it may not work to lessen your risk from lead. The plumbing systems have more and sometimes larger pipes than smaller buildings. Ask your landlord for help in locating the source of the lead and for advice on reducing the lead level.
    2. Use cold-water tap for cooking water: Try not to cook with or drink water from the hot water tap. Hot water can dissolve more lead more quickly than cold water. If you need hot water, draw water from the cold tap and heat it on the stove.
    3. Remove loose lead solder and debris from the plumbing materials installed in newly constructed homes or homes in which the plumbing has recently been replaced by removing the faucet strainers from all taps and running the water for 3 to 5 minutes. thereafter, periodically remove the strainers arid flush out any debris that has accumulated over time.
    4. Check for legal plumbing work: If your copper pipes are joined with lead solder that has been installed illegally since it was banned in 1986, notify the plumber who did the work and request that he or she replace the lead solder with lead-free solder. Lead solder looks dull gray, and when scratched with a key looks shiny. In addition, notify your health department about the violation.
    5. Check type of piping used to connect to water main: Determine whether or not the service line that connects your home or apartment to the water line is made of lead. The best way to determine if your service line is made of lead is by either hiring a licensed plumber, or a private home inspector or building inspector to inspect the line or by contacting the plumbing contractor who installed the line.

      You can identify the plumbing contractor by checking the city's record of building permits, which should he maintained in the files of the City of Poughkeepsie Building Department. A licensed plumber can at the same time check to see if your home's plumbing contains lead solder, lead pipes, or pipe fittings that contain lead.

      The public water system that delivers water to your home should also maintain records of the materials located in the distribution system.

      If the service line that connects your dwelling to the water main contributes more than 15 ppb to drinking water, after the (possibly) required comprehensive treatment program is in place, the municipality is required to replace the line.

      If the line is only partially controlled by the municipality, they are required to provide you with information on how to replace your portion of the service line, and offer to replace that portion of the line at your expense and take a follow-up tap water sample within 14 days of the replacement. Acceptable replacement alternatives include copper, steel, iron, and plastic pipes.
    6. Check electrical wiring & grounding: Have an electrician check your wiring. If grounded wires from the electrical system are attached to your pipes, corrosion may be greater. Check with a licensed electrician or your local electrical code to determine if your wiring can be grounded elsewhere. DO NOT attempt to change the wiring yourself, because improper grounding can cause electrical shock and fire hazards.
  4. Check lead level after taking steps above: The steps described above will reduce the lead concentrations in your drinking water. However, if a water test indicates that the drinking water coming from your tap contains lead concentration in excess of 15 ppb after flushing or after we have completed our actions to minimize lead levels, then you may want to take the following additional measures:
    1. Purchase or lease a home water treatment device. Home treatment devices are limited in that each unit treats only the water that flows from the faucet to which it is connected, and all of the devices require periodic maintenance and replacement. Devices such as reverse osmosis systems or distillers can effectively remove lead from your drinking water. Some activated carbon filters may reduce lead levels at the tap, however, all lead reduction claims should he investigated. Be sure to check the actual performance of a specific home treatment device before and after installing the unit.
    2. Purchase bottled water for drinking and cooking.
  5. More local information on lead in water: You can consult a variety of sources for additional information. Your family doctor or pediatrician can perform a blood test for lead and provide you with information about the health effects of lead. State and local government agencies that can be contacted include:
    1. Your municipal water treatment plant operator, health department, or water department can provide you with information about your community's water supply and a list of local laboratories that have been certified by EPA for testing water quality.
    2. Your municipal building department can provide you with information about building permit records that should contain the names of plumbing contractors that plumbed your home.
    3. Your local health department can provide you with information about the health effects of lead and how you can have your child's blood tested.

Key Advice on How to Reduce Lead in Drinking Water

Reader Question: 9/17/2014 Ajay Sankar N R said:

is there any water purifiers for removing heavy metals like "lead"- this question was originally posted at UV ULTRAVIOLET LIGHT WATER TREATMENT

Reply:

Yes Ajay there are some filters that can remove lead from drinking water, but certainly UV treatment (the article on this page) does NOT remove lead, nor other nonbiological contaminants.

Here is what the US EPA advises about lead removing water filters

A number of cartridge type filtering devices [for removing lead from drinking water] are available. 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.

Penn State offers more clear lead in water removal than does the EPA

Distillation units, also normally placed on the kitchen counter, are effective in removing lead from drinking water. However, they are relatively expensive to operate and produce only a gallon or so of water per day, depending on their size.

Contrary to some claims, water softeners are not recommended for lead removal. Softeners are inefficient lead removal devices, and they usually are installed in the plumbing system ahead of the piping and fixtures where most of the lead originates. Also, softened water is more corrosive than unsoftened water. Thus in some cases softeners could actually cause an increase in tap water lead concentrations.

Other treatment devices such as granular activated carbon Letting the water run for 1–2 minutes is the easiest and cheapest way to reduce lead levels in drinking water. This method is effective for reducing lead levels below 15µg/L in more than 90 percent of cases. (GAC) filters can remove lead, but their efficiency is questionable. GAC filters, for instance, are only efficient at removing lead when the water pH is near 7. Small, inexpensive countertop filter units are being marketed for lead removal, but prospective buyers should beware of salespersons who will not substantiate their claims or who use devices that involve questionable treatment methods.

Furthermore, excessively small units are limited in the amount of time that the filter is effective in removing lead. A National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) seal on treatment equipment is one method of ensuring that the unit has been tested for adequate removal efficiency. A NSF seal does not guarantee, however, that the filter will be effective after many months of continuous use, and filter replacement is always required periodically.

The most effective and most expensive lead removal method is to replace the leaded components in the plumbing system with nonleaded components. This procedure most often involves replacing copper pipes and lead solder with plastic PVC pipes. Only plastic PVC pipes approved for home plumbing use, as indicated by the letters NSF-pw appearing on the side of the pipe, should be used for replacement.

Replacing home plumbing components will be effective only if the source of the lead is within the home plumbing system. If the lead originates from lead service lines within a public water system, this method may be of limited benefit.

Lead Filters for Drinking Water Supplies

Watch out for devices sold to reduce lead in drinking water but that do not work. The U.S. EPA recommends that you should verify the lead-reduction claims of device manufacturers (including those listed below) by checking the NSF International or the Water Quality Association.

Lead Water Filter Suppliers

InspectAPedia.com provides building and environmental diagnostic and repair information. In order to absolutely assure our readers that we write and report without bias we do not sell any products nor do we have any business or financial relationships that could create such conflicts of interest.

  • Aquasana under-counter water filters
  • Aqua-PUre water filters
  • Brita Water Filters, USA Tel: 1-800-24-BRITA Website: https://www.brita.com
  • Elkay Water Filters
  • Pelican water filters
  • PUR water filters, Website: http://www.purwater.com/why-filter

Water Quality, Treatment, Filters, Authorities

NSF International: NSF International P.O Box 130140 789 N. Dixboro Road Ann Arbor, MI 48105, USA. NSF has offices world wide. USA Tel: 1-800-673-6275, Website: http://www.nsf.org/ Email: info@nsf.org or for standards questions: standards@nsf.org
Quoting:

Manufacturers, regulators and consumers look to NSF International for the development of public health standards and certification programs that help protect the world’s food, water, consumer products and environment. Our mission is to protect and improve global human health. As an independent, accredited organization, we develop standards, and test and certify products and systems. We provide auditing, education and risk management solutions for public health and the environment.

WQA Water Quality Association: Water Quality Association, International Headquarters & Laboratory 4151 Naperville Road Lisle, IL 60532-3696 USA Tel: 630-505-0160, Website: http://www.wqa.org/
Quoting

The Water Quality Association (WQA) is a not-for-profit association for the residential commercial, and industrial water treatment industry. WQA represents more than 2,700 member companies around the globe. Our membership is comprised of equipment manufacturers, suppliers, dealers and distributors of water quality improvement products and services. WQA proudly serves as an educator of water treatment professionals, certifier of water treatment products, public information resource and voice of the water quality improvement industry.

NRDC: Natural Resources Defense Council: Natural Resources Defense Council, 40 West 20th Street New York, NY 10011 USA Tel: (212) 727-2700, Website: http://www.nrdc.org/ Email: nrdcinfo@nrdc.org
Quoting:

The Natural Resources Defense Council's purpose is to safeguard the Earth: its people, its plants and animals and the natural systems on which all life depends. We work to restore the integrity of the elements that sustain life -- air, land and water -- and to defend endangered natural places. We seek to establish sustainability and good stewardship of the Earth as central ethical imperatives of human society. NRDC affirms the integral place of human beings in the environment. We strive to protect nature in ways that advance the long-term welfare of present and future generations. 

 

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Or see LEAD WATER PIPING for general information about lead water and drain piping in buildings.

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