Lead is one of the most common contaminants found in water sources across the US. As lead consumption has been linked to cognitive and cardiovascular issues, reproductive problems, high blood pressure, decreased kidney function, and other health worries, it’s hardly surprising if you’re keen to eliminate it from your drinking water as soon as possible.
In this guide, I’ll be discussing how lead gets into water in the first place, and sharing info on the most effective methods of removing lead from your water supply, distillation and reverse osmosis.
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🤔 How Can Lead Get Into the Drinking Water Supply?
Once upon a time, hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – of lead pipes were built underground to transport water into our homes. Back when these pipes were built, the health hazards of lead remained largely unknown. It was only years later that research brought forward some pretty horrifying evidence about the effects of lead consumption, and lead pipes were banned.
However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) never insisted that existing lead pipes were to be removed; only that new pipes would be built from lead-free material. This means that thousands of water pipes leading to US homes still leach high levels of lead into water supplies. To this day, man-made water pipes are the main cause of lead in water.
If you live in an old property and your water pipes haven’t been upgraded for decades, this may be another way that lead is leaching into your drinking water. It’s not always viable – or affordable – to strip out your home’s entire plumbing system and start again, which means that you’re about as stuck with lead-leached water as you are if your local area’s water pipes are made from lead.
🩺 What Are the Lead Health Hazards?
The biggest problem with lead is that even if you’re only consuming small amounts of it in your water supply, it’s bio-accumulative, which means it can build up in the human body over time. So, if you continue to drink the same water source from your faucet day after day, the small quantities of lead will build up in your cells rather than being expelled as a toxin. Knowing that, it’s easy to see why lead from water can result in some pretty nasty health hazards.
In young children, lead water consumption has been linked to learning disabilities, impaired hearing, nervous system damage, and poorly-functioning blood cells. Lead in water can cause learning and behavioral issues, lower IQ, slowed growth, and anemia.
In adults, lead from drinking water can cause decreased kidney function, cardiovascular issues, and reproductive problems. Lead is particularly an issue of concern in pregnant women, as it has been linked to premature growth and delayed fetal growth.
🧪 How to Detect Lead in Water?
Luckily, detecting lead in water is relatively easy, so you can quickly find out whether you need to remove lead from water that enters your own home.
Lead has no color or odor, so you can’t detect it by sight or smell. There are two common ways to detect lead contamination in your drinking water: checking out consumer confidence reports or using a water test kit.
Consumer Confidence Reports
Consumer confidence reports, otherwise known as water quality reports, are annual reports produced by your local authority. A consumer confidence report will tell you everything you need to know about your water source, including which natural resource your water comes from, how it is treated, and the trace levels of contaminants it contains. If you don’t have your latest consumer confidence report to hand, check online or get in touch with your local authority to request a copy.
The problem with consumer confidence reports is that they’ll only tell you about the quality of your water immediately after it has been treated. If lead leaches into your water on its journey to your home, a water quality report can’t detect that. For that reason, you may wish to test your home’s drinking water with a test kit.
Water Test Kit
Water test kits are widely available online, and usually cost between $10 and $20, depending on the scope of contaminants they’re able to detect. Generally, a water test kit consists of several test strips and a color chart. You’ll usually need to hold a strip under cold water for 2 minutes. The test strip will change color based on the contaminants it contains, and you can compare it to the color chart to learn more about your water’s contaminant content.
If you’re looking for the most specific results, opt for a water test kit that specifically tests for lead and perhaps one or two other contaminants. You can then see how your lead levels compare to the EPA’s standards (anything over the maximum 15 parts per billion is a bad sign), and decide whether you need to take steps to remove lead from your home’s water.
✅ How to Remove Lead from Water?
Not all water filters are designed to remove lead, so make sure you do your research (or simply keep on reading!) to be sure you’re making a wise investment. I’ve highlighted the most popular lead removal techniques below.
Water distillation takes place in a distiller, a machine that usually sits on your countertop and requires electricity to operate. To use a distiller, you simply add water to the machine’s boiling chamber, then switch it on. As water boils, it will evaporate, before condensing and passing down a tube into a clean pitcher.
The reason why distilling water is so effective is that when it turns to gaseous form, most contaminants can’t reach this state, and they end up left behind in the boiling chamber. Lead generally doesn’t turn into a gas when it’s boiled in water, and any that may take on a gaseous state would be unable to return to liquid form with the water particles. This makes a distiller system one of the best water treatment methods that removes lead entirely from your water supply.
Reverse osmosis filtration systems are another effective means of lead removal, though not quite as effective as distillation. In reverse osmosis, water is forced at a high pressure through several filter stages and a reverse osmosis membrane, which has tiny pores that only allow water particles to pass through. The remaining contaminants, including lead, are flushed down a drain in the system at a constant rate during the reverse osmosis process.
Reverse osmosis is highly effective, and an RO system typically removes more than 90% of total dissolved solids, reducing levels down to around 50 parts per million (PPM). It can effectively remove lead from water thanks to its thorough filtration, though this filtered water solution can be a little more expensive than other options.
NSF 53 Certified Filters
An increasing number of drinking water filters now boast an NSF 53 certification, for lead removal. NSF 53-certified filters can be found on a range of water treatment filtration system types, from carbon pitcher filters to countertop systems and whole-home filters.
When a product is certified by the NSF for Standard 53, it means it has been third-party tested to assure that its lead-filtering capabilities are as effective as advertised. Currently, the filter types that NSF provides certifications for include the following:
- Gravity pitchers/carafes
- Faucet-mounted filters
- Countertop filter units connected to a faucet
- Under-sink water filters
- Refrigerator filters
It’s best to look for a water filter that has an NSF 53 certification if you want to be absolutely certain that it’ll filter lead from tap water. This is especially important if you plan to use activated carbon or granulated carbon filters, which aren’t guaranteed to offer lead removal.
⚠️ Does Boiling Water Remove Lead?
Because distillation, which involved boiling, can remove a high level of lead from drinking water, it would be logical to assume that boiling water could also remove at least a small amount of lead. However, this isn’t the case.
When you boil water, the only thing that’ll happen is that some of the water will evaporate, which means you’ll end up with a higher concentration of lead in the same amount of hot water – and that’s it. The difference that makes distillation capable of removing lead and other heavy metals is this: water leaves the boiling chamber as gas and condenses into a clean pitcher. When you boil water, however, it’ll simply rise in the air as a gas, and you won’t be able to catch it in its distilled form.
You can filter out lead through your own distillation process, though. Just fill a pot one-third of the way with cold water and place a small pot inside it. Put the pot on a high heat and place an upside-down lid on top. When water evaporates, it’ll float up to reach the pan lid and consense, where it’ll run down to the middle of the lid and drip into the small pot, leaving the lead behind in the large pot.
❔ Frequently Asked Questions
Can I remove lead from hot water?
Most water filter cartridges can only be used to filter cold water, as hot tap water may damage their pores. For that reason, if you want to use filtered hot water, you’ll need to filter cold water, then heat it up on the stove.
How do I know if my home has lead pipes?
Homes built before 1986 typically use lead plumbing, so if you can put a date to when your property was built, that’s an easy way to know. Another way to check is to feel your pipes – pipes made from lead are soft and dull grey in color, and when you scrape them a coin, they’ll reveal a shiny silver metal layer. Even if your actual pipes and faucets aren’t made from lead, you may still have lead solder between pipes, so be sure to check for that too.
Can I get my water tested for lead?
Yes – if you’re looking for the most thorough results, you can get your water tested by a laboratory. You may especially want to do this if you have a well water source of lead and you want to be sure that your lead exposure isn’t too high.
What else can a water filter system remove?
It’s common for a high-quality water filter to remove contaminants like lead, chlorine, pesticides, herbicides and other heavy metals – so you can often enjoy multiple benefits from a single filtration system.
What type of lead water filter system is best for me?
It depends on your budget and your preferences. Under-sink filters and reverse osmosis filtration units tend to be more thorough, but you need a relatively stable water pressure to install one of these in your home, and they tend to be more expensive to buy and use. A faucet filter system, filter pitcher or distiller requires a simpler installation and is easier to use, often filtering more than 100 gallons of water per day – just be sure any of these types of filter can remove lead contamination before you make a purchase.