Do Water Softeners Remove Lead from Water? (an Expert Explains)

If you’re considering a water softener to tackle the limescale issues in your home, you might be wondering whether this type of water treatment unit has any additional contaminant removal perks.

Do water softeners only get rid of water hardness, or do they also remove other contaminants? Most importantly, do water softeners remove lead?

📖 TL;DR

The short answer is no, water softeners don’t remove lead. If you want a solution to lead contamination, you need a water filtration system that’s specifically designed for removing lead.

In this guide, we’ll be looking in detail at how water softeners work, and why these systems aren’t capable of removing lead. We’ll also be answering your frequently asked questions about lead-contaminated water.

🚿 How do Water Softeners Work?

A water softening system uses a process called ion exchange to soften a drinking water supply.

During ion exchange, positively charged calcium and magnesium ions are attracted to a negatively charged softening resin. When these ions stick to the resin, positively charged sodium ions are released into the water to balance out its charge.

The result is that all the calcium and magnesium minerals are removed from the water, and replaced with equal amounts of sodium.

Water softeners consist of two tanks: a resin tank and a brine tank. Salt is manually added to the brine tank, and the water softener performs a regeneration cycle when the resin is saturated with hardness minerals and needs to be replenished with sodium.

During regeneration, water flushes through the resin, removing the hardness minerals. Water then mixes with salt in the brine tank, forming a brine solution, which is carried into the resin tank.

How a water softener works diagram

🚱 Why Doesn’t a Water Softener Remove Lead?

Do water softeners remove lead from water? No. But why not? To answer this question, we need to look again at the process of ion exchange.

Water softening systems are only designed to target positively charged calcium and magnesium minerals in ion form. The ion exchange process simply wouldn’t work to remove lead.

Lead is a difficult contaminant to remove from water, and can usually only be targeted with water filters that have smaller pore sizes than the lead particles themselves.

This physically blocks lead from passing any further through the filter, while water particles are small enough to leave the other side of the filter media.

✅ What Do Water Softeners Remove?

Water softeners are designed to remove calcium and magnesium, the two minerals that are responsible for water hardness (hence the name “water softener”). Some softeners can also remove low levels of iron from a water supply – but they don’t reduce lead levels.

By the way, water conditioners don’t reduce lead, either. These types of scale-reduction systems alter the makeup of hardness minerals, and don’t remove any kind of impurity at all.

Ion exchange process

⚠️ Soft Water and Lead Leaching

Don’t panic – your water’s lead content isn’t guaranteed to increase after you install a water softener.

In fact, this should only happen in one instance: if your home’s plumbing system is made from lead.

If your plumbing dates back to before 1986 – when the use of lead pipes was banned – there’s a chance that your pipes contain lead.

Not sure what your pipes are made from? Check an unpainted section of your pipes. Lead pipes are naturally dark gray and softer than other metals.

If your pipes contain lead, it’s highly likely that lead is already leaching into your water. But because soft water has an absence of minerals, it’s more reactive, and is more prone to leaching materials from the pipes it travels through.

So, think again before you install a water softener for lead removal if your home contains lead pipes. Not only do water softeners not remove lead, but softening your water might end up increasing your lead exposure.

🚰 How to Remove Lead from Water

Tired of drinking bottled water to avoid your lead-contaminated tap water?

If lead removal is your main goal, some of the best water treatment methods for reducing lead levels are:

Reverse Osmosis Water Filtration Systems

Reverse osmosis systems address lead contamination by sending drinking water through multiple filter stages, including an activated carbon filter, a semipermeable membrane, and pre- and post-filters.

The RO semipermeable membrane blocks contaminants as small as 0.0005 microns. These impurities rebound off the membrane and are washed down a drain, allowing for incredibly thorough contaminant removal – up to 98% of all total dissolved solids.

How much lead can a reverse osmosis water filter remove? A good reverse osmosis unit can remove between 94% and 97% of lead. Keep in mind, though, that reverse osmosis is expensive, and is known to reduce water pressure.

Reverse osmosis system

Water Distillers

Water distillers offer another highly effective method of purifying water.

The water distillation process involves boiling water until it evaporates. Most contaminants have higher boiling points than water. This means they don’t evaporate when water does, and remain in the boiling chamber while water travels through a cooling corridor and condenses into a clean container.

Distillers can remove more than 99% of lead from drinking water.

Activated Carbon Water Filters

Activated carbon filters absorb lead in drinking water. However, most activated carbon filters aren’t effective enough at lead removal, so don’t assume that a standard activated carbon water filter offers guaranteed lead removal.

Most activated carbon filters for lead removal use a blend of activated carbon and aluminum oxide to tackle this contaminant. If you’re not sure whether a water filter removes lead, ask the manufacturer for a data or test sheet, or look for an NSF Standard 53 certification.

This type of lead water filter can remove anything from 50% to 90% lead from water.

Activated carbon filter cartridges

KDF Media

KDF refers to several types of filter media that remove contaminants using redox reactions.

The best types of KDF media for reducing lead are KDF-C, KDF 55, and KDF 85, which are capable of reducing up to 98% of water-soluble cations – including lead.

KDF media is either used in filter cartridges or added to large tank-based filter systems. KDF is most commonly used as a whole house filtration solution, but may also be used in under-sink water systems.

As well as removing up to 99% lead, KDF targets mercury, chromium, nickel, and other dissolved metals.

Cation Exchange Resin

Cation exchange resin is the final water treatment option for removing lead from drinking water.

This type of resin removes most positively-charged minerals from water, including copper, barium, aluminum, radium, and lead.

While cation exchange resin is an option, we’d consider KDF or reverse osmosis units if you’re looking to remove as much lead as possible.

Change your Pipes

There’s nothing you can do about lead service lines leading to your home. But if you have lead plumbing pipes that’s contributing to your water’s lead levels, the most common sense way to reduce lead is to replace your pipes.

Of course, swapping pipes containing lead for lead-free pipes is an expensive task, and this might be out of your budget. Still, we strongly recommend saving up to replace your lead pipelines while you use a water filter for lead reduction.

If your water’s lead levels are high, you don’t want to rely on a water filter to remove this contaminant. Imagine if the filter became ineffective without you realizing? And exclusively drinking bottled water will end up costing you as much as replacing your pipes in the long run.

In short, changing your lead pipes is the best permanent solution for eliminating lead.

🧠 Water Softener Lead Removal FAQs

What’s so bad about lead?

Lead in water is considered dangerous even in trace amounts. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Maximum Contaminant Level for lead is 0 mg/L. That means that even 0.001 mg/L of lead in water is considered unsafe.

Lead accumulates in the body, and can eventually cause lead poisoning. People with lead poisoning have symptoms including high blood pressure, headache, nervous system damage, mood disorders, and joint pain. Lead poisoning occurs after months or years of lead exposure, so you could drink lead-contaminated drinking water for years without even knowing.

Why doesn’t a water softener remove lead?

The ion exchange process simply doesn’t address lead contamination. You’ll need a water filter system to tackle lead in your tap water.

How can you reduce your lead exposure?

Aside from installing a filtration system to remove lead from your water supply, you can also reduce your lead exposure by using cold water, which dissolves lead at a slower rate than hot water, and flushing your tap water supply for several seconds to get rid of accumulated lead. You can also drink bottled water, although this isn’t an eco-friendly long-term solution, and some bottled water contains lead.

Lead poisoning through ingestion

Does boiling water remove lead?

No, boiling water doesn’t remove lead. In fact, if you have lead in water, boiling the water, will only increase the lead concentration per cup of water, because all that will happen is that some of the water evaporates. Boiling water can only be used to evaporate chlorine and kill microorganisms like bacteria.

What is the best way to remove lead from water?

The best way to remove lead from water is with reverse osmosis or distillation. Some whole house water filters are also designed for lead removal, although they don’t tend to be as thorough as RO purification or distillation.

What metals do water softeners remove?

Water softeners don’t remove metals, they remove minerals. However, a water softener can remove trace amounts of iron, which is considered both a mineral and a metal.

Are there water filters that remove lead?

Yes! A reverse osmosis system, a distiller, and a whole house water treatment system can all reduce water’s lead concentration.

What is the downside of a water softener?

The biggest downside of a water softener system is that water becomes more volatile after being softened, and is more likely to pick up elements from your pipes.

Why does soft water dissolve lead?

Soft water is lacking minerals, which makes it more reactive. Because of this, it’s more likely to dissolve lead. Soft water is also more corrosive because it’s less alkaline than hard water, making it more likely to corrode your pipes.