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Lead is one of the most common and dangerous drinking water contaminants. It’s harmful to health, particularly in children, and should be avoided at all costs. Even drinking lead-laced water for a short period of time can be damaging, as lead is known as a cumulative toxin. This means that once it is able to enter your body, it’ll only ever build up, and it can’t ever leave.
Because lead can get into all manner of drinking water sources, including municipal water supplies, it’s important to test for this contaminant if you haven’t already. You may be drinking tap water that contains low amounts of lead without even knowing it.
In this guide, I’ll be sharing the best-known methods for testing water for lead – and what to do if you discover high levels of lead in your own water source.
🤔 Should I Test My Water for Lead?
Whether you have a private well or your home is connected to a public water supply, it’s advisable that you test your water for lead.
You might think you’re safe if you drink public water, as your local authority tests for lead and provides information about water quality for reassurance. But lead pipes may add lead into your water after it has been tested by your local authority or state, and this won’t be included in your local area’s water quality report.
When you have a well, you don’t even have a water quality report to go off, and it’s entirely your responsibility to test your well’s water lead levels.
Lead is a dangerous toxin that can cause a whole host of health effects, especially in children. As per The Safe Drinking Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has produced Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs) for lead in drinking water. The level is set at 0, because the Environmental Protection Agency deems lead to be harmful in the smallest amounts.
Some of the health effects of even low amounts of lead in tap water include the following:
- High blood pressure
- Poor kidney health
- Reproductive problems
- Reduced fetus growth and premature birth in pregnant women
In children, the health effects of lead include:
- Hearing problems
- Impaired growth
- Learning and behavioral problems
🚱 How Does Lead Get Into Tap Water?
Lead can get into drinking water through corroding lead pipes and plumbing, particularly in areas where water lacks minerals or is more acidic, making it more likely to contribute to corrosion.
Most lead in drinking water comes from lead faucets, pipes (these could be pipes in your own home or the service line leading to your home), plumbing, and fixtures. Lead solder on pipes and plumbing can also pose a risk. Lead is a banned material for use in water systems nowadays – but that ban doesn’t affect lead service lines that are already in existence.
When these pipes corrode, lead enters the water flowing through them. A number of factors can affect the likelihood of lead corrosion, including how acid or alkaline your water is (the more acid, the more corrosion), how much lead your water is exposed to and the length of exposure time, how much wear the pipes have experienced, and the temperature of the water (the higher the temperature, the higher the corrosion rate).
Lead is rarely found naturally in surface water, so if you own a private well, it’s likely that the lead in your water has come from your pipes, plumbing & fixtures. Your well itself could be contributing to your water’s lead content, such as the wall seal above the well screen and your submersible pump, – an issue in many wells more than 20 years old.
🧪 How to Test for Lead in Drinking Water
Lead is tasteless, odorless and clear, so if you want to know whether it’s in your drinking water supply, you’ll be required to test for it. There are many different ways that you can test your water samples for lead – I’ve highlighted the most common below.
Home Water Test Kit
First off, if you don’t know whether you’re dealing with any amount of lead in your water, one option is to use an at-home DIY water testing kit. Test kits are cheap to buy and widely available online.
To perform a lead test, simply dip a testing strip into a water sample from your kitchen faucet and leave it for several seconds, as advised in the test kit instructions. Then remove the strip and let it sit for several minutes. It will change color to indicate lead in your water. You can compare your test results to the included color chart to see how high your lead levels are.
At-home water testing kits are a good option if you’re looking to to get a basic understanding of your home’s water lead content, and they’re certainly convenient, taking just minutes to carry out. But if you want a proper indication of how clean or unclean your water is, you’ll want to consider additional tests, as these DIY kits aren’t the most comprehensive. If your results indicate low levels of lead, you should follow this up with lead testing from a certified lab.
Certified Laboratory Testing
There are many available state-certified laboratories across the US that offer private, professional testing of both public water and well water supplies that may contain lead.
For a certified lab test, you’ll usually be required to send off one or several water samples. Labs will perform extensive testing to determine your water’s exact lead levels. If they’re any higher than 0, according to the EPA, your health might be at risk. It takes usually 24 hours to receive your test results from a lab. You can call up after 48 hours if you still haven’t heard anything back.
The benefits of getting a sample of your water laboratory-tested are obvious. You can get your drinking water tested for contaminants aside from lead, which is handy if you’re concerned about the contaminants your water supplier may not fully remove from your tap water, and essential if you take your water from a private well and you want to make sure it’s safe for drinking.
While getting your water tested by labs usually costs more than $100, it’s often worth it as a one-time payment – many people see it as an investment in their health. Once you know your exact tap water lead level, you can use the information on your lab report to take immediate action against the issue at hand.
Check Your Pipes
If your home was built before 1970, there’s a chance that it may have lead pipes. If your pipes are unpainted, it’s easier to spot lead, which will give your pipes a dull grey color. To check for lead, use a coin to gently scrape the surface of a pipe. If the dull grey scrapes away to reveal shiny, silver metal, it’s a good indication that your pipes are made from lead.
Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly after conducting this test, especially if you have reason to believe your home’s water pipes are made from lead.
Checking your main water line will give you some idea of your water’s lead level, but remember that lead might be present in the service line leading to your home. In that case, you might not have any lead piping in your own home, but lead is still getting into your tap water through your service line. That’s why it’s always best to get a sample of your water tested by a professional, especially if you have reasons to be concerned about your health.
Hire a Water Treatment Company
A water treatment company can provide specialist testing for lead in your home’s water supply. An industry expert will perform an analysis of your water to detect lead, determine water’s lead content, and offer solutions for removing lead from your tap water based on their results – all within minutes.
Usually, an expert will follow the above steps, checking your home’s pipes, pipe fittings and plumbing for lead, and taking a sample of water for detailed testing. They might also alert you to additional contaminants in the water you use, so you know exactly what specific issue you’re dealing with and the steps to take to remedy it.
This option is worth considering if you’re unable to figure out the source of your water’s lead content, as an experienced water treatment company should be able to find out what you’re looking for. Keep in mind, however, that it will be more expensive to hire out a company than to check for lead yourself or submit a sample of water for lab testing.
Ask Your Water Supplier to Test It
It’s not unusual for local municipal water utilities to provide test services for people who use their public water supply. Your water supplier will produce annual water quality reports; however, as already established, they won’t account for lead in your service line or your home’s piping, pipe fittings or plumbing.
If you have evidence to believe your tap water lead level may be unsafe, you may have grounds to call your local authority or state and request for possible free testing by your supplier. However, this can sometimes come at a cost, and not every water supplier has the capacity to offer this service.
✔️ What Can I Do If My Water Tests Positive for Lead?
Remember that levels of lead above 0 in drinking water are considered unsafe, so if test results show that your tap water contains 1 ppm of lead, the EPA sees this as potentially harmful to health.
If your water tests positive for lead, the first thing to do is try to determine the cause. Considering lead isn’t one of the natural contaminants found in water, it’s safe to guess that your lead level contamination is related to either lead piping and fixtures in homes or a main service pipe leading to your home.
If your home’s piping is solely to blame for your results, consider the cost of replacing your water system. Keep in mind, however, that this can be a very expensive job.
If you can’t afford to pay for replacement piping materials, or your high lead level comes from a service pipe, your best bet is to remove lead from your drinking water, rather than removing the source of the problem itself.
There are many effective EPA-approved means of lead removal, including reverse osmosis systems, activated carbon filtration systems and whole-home filtration systems. I’ve produced a full additional guide that includes all the latest tips and info on how to remove lead from drinking water if this is a problem you’re facing.
Remember, before you consider purchasing a system to treat your potential lead problem, head online to check out customer reviews. Previous customers’ experiences with a system can either convince you to buy a system or put you off the system altogether. You should always read product reviews with an open mind, but they can be generally very helpful in boosting your confidence when it comes to making an informed purchase.
❔ Frequently Asked Questions
If My Drinking Water Lead Levels Are Higher Than 0, Should I Panic?
No – not unless results show that your levels are higher than 15 parts per billion. While the EPA considers anything higher than 0 to be dangerous, the “lead action level” – i.e. the level of lead in your drinking water that’s high enough to require essential action to address the problem – is 15 parts per billion. Still, you may prefer to have no lead in your tap water whatsoever – and in that case, if your results indicate a potential lead issue, you’ll likely want to purchase one of the water filtration systems capable of treating lead-contaminated water.
I Need More Information About Tap Water Lead In My City – Where Can I Find It?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers some useful resources about the acceptable level of lead in public water. You can visit the EPA website for more general information.
Aside from the EPA, the CDC offers some basic guidance on lead in tap water – here’s a useful resource.
For accurate information about lead in city or public water, you’re best giving a representative of your local authority or state a call, who can share reports on your tap water quality and offer advice about what to do if your water is contaminated.
Is Lead The Only Common Water Contaminant I Should Be Aware Of?
No- there are many other possible contaminants found in drinking water sources, including bacteria, chlorine, micro-plastic particles, chlorine, heavy metals, and pesticides, herbicides and nitrates. Even city water that comes out of your tap can be contaminated with traces of organic and inorganic materials that can only be detected by accurate testing of samples, usually by a lab.
Copper is a contaminant that’s similar to lead – many residents drink it in the water that’s sent to their homes. The difference is that copper is needed in small amounts in our bodies, but too much copper, especially when accompanied by lead, can be dangerous.
If you’re keen to learn more about the common culprits behind water contamination in both city sources and wells, I’ve listed them all in this guide.
Is Lead Actually Still A Problem Today?
Yes. Although the EPA’s new federal safety standards ban the use of lead materials in faucets, fixtures and piping, it could still be in an older service line leading to homes. The EPA’s federal safety standards don’t cover older piping – which means lead may still enter peoples’ homes on a daily basis as a result.
A recent example of lead still affects our water today is the Flint water crisis, which took place between 2014 and 2019 in Flint, Michigan. It was discovered that within this period of time, a total of up to 12,000 children in the state were exposed to lead that was contaminated with lead and bacteria.