Since the lead in drinking water crisis in Flint, public awareness of lead-contaminated drinking water has soared. Earlier this year, news came to light of historically high levels of lead in drinking water fountains throughout the Newark Public School District in New Jersey. Since then, thousands of schools, day-care centers, and public facilities throughout the country have tested their drinking water sources for lead. Despite recent media attention, there remains a lot of confusion about the sources of lead in our drinking water and what can be done to protect us.
Why is Lead a Health Concern?
Although lead is a naturally occurring heavy metal that is present throughout the Earth’s crust, it can cause significant health effects in humans. Young children are particularly susceptible to the health effects of lead, affecting development of the brain and nervous system. Adults are also prone to long-term health effects, including high blood pressure, kidney damage, miscarriage, and birth defects.
How Does Lead Get Into the Drinking Water?
Despite what some people may think, the municipally supplied drinking water that comes into our homes, schools, and places of work is usually of good quality, containing little-to-no lead. The problem often occurs when the water leaves the street and enters our buildings. Lead contamination of drinking water can occur from leaded service lines that connect to the water mains and from contact with the interior plumbing. When you consider that most plumbing systems comprise of soldered pipes that may contain up to 50% lead, it’s hardly surprising to learn that lead in pipes will slowly leach into the drinking water. But it’s not just the soldered pipes! Brass fittings and valves used throughout many plumbing systems may also contain high concentrations of lead.
Properties constructed before 1986 are more likely to contain lead pipes, fixtures, and solder. However, newer properties are also at risk. You may be surprised to know that until as recently as 2014, “lead-free” pipes, fixtures, and fittings were allowed to contain up to 8% lead by law! The most common problem is from brass fixtures and faucets with lead solder in which high concentrations of lead may leach out into the drinking water.
How Can I Tell if There is Lead in My Water?
Lead in water cannot be seen, tasted, or smelled. Unfortunately the only way to tell whether there is lead in your water is to have it tested and analyzed by a licensed laboratory. Samples can be collected from drinking water sources (including faucets and water fountains) and sent to a licensed laboratory for testing. This is the most accurate method, providing a true indication of the actual amount of lead in your water. If levels are high, a second (flush) sample can be collected to determine whether the source of lead is from the faucet or internal plumbing. A service line sample can also be collected to determine if the source of lead is from the service line entering the property.
What is the Safe Level of Lead?
Most scientific studies show that exposure to lead-contaminated drinking water alone is unlikely to cause an elevated blood lead level in adults. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that the risk will vary according to the individual and how much water they consume. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) most stringent criteria for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion (ppb). This is equivalent to just 15 drops of water in an Olympic size swimming pool! The EPA recommends that sources of drinking water containing more than 15 ppb of lead should be removed from service and remediated.
What Should I Do if I Have Lead in My Drinking Water?
If testing reveals concentrations of lead in your drinking exceeding the EPA’s action level of 15 ppb, there are several steps you can take. If the outlet cannot be removed from service before it is remediated, you may choose to flush your plumbing each day before using the water (or after 6 hours of inactivity). Flushing water through your plumbing will help remove any lead that has leached out of your pipes and into your water while sitting stagnant. You should always avoid using hot water for cooking and making hot drinks and lead is more likely to leach out into hot water than cold water. These are good temporary fixes, but for long-term solutions the EPA recommends the following steps:
- Replace any known lead pipes or lead services lines
- Replace faucets containing leaded brass and/or solder
- Use point-of-use filters to reduce lead at drinking water sources
- Consume bottled drinking water
Once you have remediated a water source, a follow-up sample should be collected to confirm that the water is now safe to drink.
What About Taking a Bath or Shower?
Your skin does not absorb lead in water meaning that it is safe to bathe and wash with water that contains lead even at levels above the EPA’s action level. You should take care to avoid consuming hot water from the tap as it may also contain other contaminants.
Where Can I get More Information?
Karl Environmental Group has performed thousands of drinking water tests for clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. For more information about drinking water testing visit our water testing page or Contact Us to get in touch with our team of experts to answer any questions you may have.
Written by Darren Townsend
Karl Environmental Group