Lead is a heavy metal that can have serious health effects, especially for young children. If your drinking water is contaminated with lead, there are steps you can take to reduce exposing you and your family.
With regulations like the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), The United States has some of the safest tap water in the world. But lead can get into your drinking water, putting your health at risk. Understanding how lead gets into your drinking water and knowing what you can do to minimize your exposure is the first step to protecting you and your family.
Why lead in drinking water is dangerous
Lead in your home’s drinking water is a real concern because it is colorless, tasteless, and odorless. Often people don’t know that their water is contaminated. Even small quantities of lead in drinking water can adversely affect your health. This is because it isn’t easily flushed out of the body. Instead, it absorbs and accumulates in organs and bones where it can stay for years.
Lead exposure is especially dangerous to unborn fetuses, infants, and young children because they are developing so rapidly. Often symptoms of lead exposure in children are not immediately obvious, but may include:
- Premature birth
- Stunted growth
- Delayed cognitive development
- Learning disabilities
Lead can cross the placental barrier, exposing fetuses when the mother drinks contaminated water. Infants can be exposed when the formula is made with contaminated water and also through breast milk when the mother drinks contaminated water. Young children are most often exposed by drinking contaminated water at home, school, or daycare facilities. In addition, they may also be exposed to lead in paint, dust, and soil. Your healthcare provider can perform a blood test if you are concerned about your children’s exposure to lead.
Older children and adults are less likely to suffer adverse effects from lead exposure than young children, but adults may experience health issues like:
- Reproductive issues
- Cognitive issues
Symptoms in children and adults can be treated, but not reversed. So with these kinds of long-term risks, it’s important to keep lead out of your drinking water as well as any other routes of exposure.
How lead gets into drinking water
When an American municipality treats drinking water and releases it for household use, it is usually free of lead. But a lot can happen between the water treatment facility and your tap. If your tap water at home has lead, there are several ways that it could have happened:
- A broken water main that is exposed to contaminated soil
- The service line between the water main and your home is made with lead
- The home plumbing pipes are made with lead
- The home plumbing or water fixtures are made of copper or brass with lead particles
- The pipe connections in the home are fitted or soldered with material that contains lead
Regulations by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have reduced exposure to lead in drinking water in the past few decades. However, pipes, fittings, and fixtures made before 1986 may contain lead. Even fixtures that are labeled “lead-free” may contain trace amounts of lead. And since there are no safe levels of lead in drinking water, then reducing or eliminating exposure is important.
Lead leaches from the plumbing into the drinking water via the chemical reaction of corrosion. Water in general is a natural solvent and all types of water can carry lead, but there are several types of water that more easily corrode lead and make it easier to leach into the water:
- Higher acidity (pH of less than 7) – most tap water has a pH between 6.5 and 8
- Lower concentration of calcium carbonate
- Softer water – which has lower concentrations of magnesium and calcium
- Hot water since it dissolves lead faster than cold water
Other factors that may affect the amount of lead in your tap water are:
- Time – the longer the water has contact with the lead, the more that will dissolve into the water
- The amount of surface area of lead exposed to the water – more surface exposure will increase lead in the water
- Protective coatings in pipes can reduce lead exposure to the water – usually, a substance added to the water by the city.
Test your water if you suspect lead contamination
Knowing if you have a problem is the first step to finding a solution so test your water for lead. Some cities will provide water testing kits to their residents free of charge, so start by contacting your city. Another option for testing is to send a water sample to an environmental lab. They can test your water for lead, as well as other contaminants, in a few days. This will provide the most accurate results by giving you the level of contamination in parts per billion (ppb), but this option will also cost you the most. Depending on how many contaminants you test for, you might spend between $70 and $700 per water sample. A less expensive option is to use a DIY kit. Watersafe Drinking Water Test Kit is a DIY test kit that will give you results in a few minutes. It also tests for 9 other contaminants besides lead. Another option is the Safe Home lead test which is a DIY kit that tests lead only, has simple instructions, and provides “yes or no” results so you don’t have to struggle with trying to match a color.
For any lead testing, you will want to collect your water sample after the water in your home has been sitting still in the pipes for at least 6 hours. Collect the sample when you first turn on a faucet in the morning before anyone in the home has taken a shower or flushed the toilets. You may wish to submit a second water sample for comparison after the lines have been flushed for 10 minutes. Test your home’s drinking water regularly as water quality can change, which can affect how much lead can leach into the water.
What you can do if your water tests positive for lead
If you have confirmed that there is lead in your drinking water, there are several things that you can do now and in the future to reduce your exposure:
1. Flush your water lines
If water has been sitting stagnant in the pipes for more than 6 hours, run the water for at least 10 minutes before drinking it. The water that may have more lead leached into it will have a chance to get flushed down the drain. This can be as simple as taking a shower in the morning before getting a glass of water to drink. Bathing in water with lead is safe since lead does not absorb through the skin. Even when your home’s water has been stagnant for less than 6 hours, allow the tap to run cold water for a minute or two before collecting it to drink.
2. Use cold water
For drinking or cooking, use only cold water from the tap. Hot water will corrode lead faster than cold water so cold water will have less lead in it. After collecting cold water from the tap, then heat it in a pot or a kettle to cook with.
3. Clean your aerators
Cleaning the aerators in your faucets regularly removes lead particles and sediment that collect in them and continue exposing your tap water.
4. Purify before drinking
Purify your water before consuming it, especially for young children in your home and for women who are pregnant or nursing. Filtering is one way of doing this, but not all water filters are created equal and not all are capable of removing lead from drinking water so shop carefully. The NSF and WQA are agencies that certify the quality of water filters so look for their logos when you shop for a filter that claims to remove lead. Besides filtering, other ways you can remove lead from your drinking water are distillation and reverse osmosis. Distillers, like this Pure Water counter-top distiller, are very effective at removing lead as well as other contaminants. Reverse osmosis units are also popular water purifiers, but they are slightly less effective at removing lead. Whether you choose a whole-house reverse-osmosis system or a simple pitcher filter, always follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for maintenance and replacement for the best results. Also, please be aware that boiling water will not remove lead.
5. Use bottled water
This may not be the best option for a long-term solution as it will get expensive and the excess plastic contributes to environmental contamination. But bottled water may be a good part of your short-term solution until you can get filtered water and remove the source of the lead contamination.
6. Remove the source of the lead
The lead will continue to contaminate your drinking water until the source of contamination is removed. Consult with a professional plumber about replacing lead pipes or connections in your home. If your service line contains lead, your city may be able to replace it for you. Even after these renovations are complete, lead could continue to show up in your water for several months so continue to use precautions until water tests come back negative for lead.
Lead in your drinking water can pose serious health hazards, but there are things you can do to protect yourself and your family while you wait for a permanent solution. The sooner you take action to reduce your exposure, the less lead you will consume from your drinking water, which might save you from a more serious illness.