Lead is considered one of the most dangerous, toxic drinking water contaminants of all. Even trace amounts of lead in water are considered to have a public health risk.
This glossary will discuss lead in water, including how lead gets into drinking water supplies, how much lead is considered safe, and how to protect your family from drinking water lead.
Table of Contents
- ❔ What is Lead?
- 🩺 What are the Potential Health Effects of Lead?
- 🚰 How Does Lead Get Into Drinking Water?
- 📉 Do Water Treatment Facilities Monitor Levels of Lead in Drinking Water?
- 🔎 How Can I Tell if Lead is in My Drinking Water?
- 👩🏽⚕️ How Can I Protect My Family from Lead in Drinking Water?
- ⚠️ How Else Can I Be Exposed to Lead?
- 📝 Where Can I Get More Information?
❔ What is Lead?
💡 Lead is a heavy metal and chemical element that has a silvery color with a hint of blue, or a dull gray color when exposed to air. Lead is naturally occurring in the earth’s crust, and is known for being toxic to humans and animals.
Lead is malleable and soft, with a relatively low melting point, making it a popular metal for a range of industrial uses, including making car batteries, weights, ammunition, pigments, and cable sheathing.
Lead was also commonly used to make water service lines and plumbing until congress updated the Safe Drinking Water Act to ban the use of lead pipes in 1986, due to new research into the toxicity of the metal.
|In Water As||Pb(OH)2, PbCO3, Pb2O|
|Sources||Industrial pollution and improper waste disposal|
Rain and surface runoff
Lead service lines and lead plumbing
Industrial processes, smelting, and mines
Contaminant Levels (MCLs)
|US EPA: 0.00 mg/L|
EPA Action Level: 0.015 mg/L
WHO Guideline: 0.01 mg/L
EWG: 0.0002 mg/L
|Potential Health Risks||High risk in children|
Poorly-functioning blood cells
Can cause seizures and even death at high levels
NSF 53-Certified Filters
🩺 What are the Potential Health Effects of Lead?
Lead is a cumulative toxicant, which means that it builds up in the human body over time and can’t be expelled. That’s why even tiny amounts of lead are dangerous – consuming even trace levels of lead particles over a period of decades could eventually result in lead poisoning.
According to the EPA, some of the known health effects of lead exposure in tap water are:
- Cardiovascular issues
- Reproductive problems
- Premature birth (in pregnant women)
- Decreased kidney function
- High blood pressure
Lead is particularly dangerous to children and pregnant women. A dose of lead considered harmless to adults may have serious effects on children.
Childhood lead poisoning has the following health effects:
- Delayed fetal growth
- Impaired hearing
- Learning difficulties
- Lower IQ
- Slower growth
- Poorly-functioning blood cells
- Nervous system damage
Rarely, lead poisoning can cause seizures and even death.
🚰 How Does Lead Get Into Drinking Water?
Lead is found naturally in low levels in the ground. Small amounts of lead leach into water as it seeps through the earth or flows over lead-containing rocks. Industrial pollution and improper waste disposal also cause lead contamination in water, through rain and surface runoff.
The most likely cause of lead in drinking water, however, is from lead service lines and lead plumbing. Although lead pipes were banned several decades ago, this ban didn’t dictate that all existing lead service lines were replaced. This means that many people still receive their water from a lead service line today – an estimated 15 to 22 million Americans still drink water that enters their homes through lead pipes.
Even if your water doesn’t travel through lead service lines, your home may contain lead pipes, or you may have brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and plumbing fixtures with lead solder. Many household plumbing systems still contain lead, which a local water authority has no control over.
There are several factors that affect the rate of corrosion in lead water pipes, including:
- The chemistry of the water. Lead dissolves easily in acidic water with a low pH
- The temperature of the water. Hot water dissolves lead more easily than cold water
- The length of time that water stays in the pipes. The longer the contact between the water and the pipes, the greater the contamination
- The amount of lead water comes into contact with. The more lead in the plumbing materials, the higher the risk of contamination
📉 Do Water Treatment Facilities Monitor Levels of Lead in Drinking Water?
Yes, water treatment facilities monitor levels of lead in drinking water. The EPA first began regulating lead in tap water in 1991, when the Lead and Copper Rule was published. The rule has undergone various revisions since then.
There are several stringent guidelines for lead that all local water treatment systems must follow:
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Maximum Contaminant Level Goal: 0.00 mg/L (or PPM)
- EPA Action Level: 0.015 mg/L (or PPM)
- World Health Organization (WHO) guideline: 0.01 mg/L (or PPM)
Water treatment facilities must test and treat their water to remove lead, and provide testing data to the EPA on request. Lead is one of the most dangerous drinking water contaminants, and facilities must thoroughly treat their water supplies to reduce lead levels to as close to 0 as possible. If a facility exceeds the action level for lead, the system must make the public aware and inform customers of the steps they should take to protect their families from lead.
The problem with this method of monitoring lead is that it only prevents lead contamination at the water treatment stage. The Environmental Protection Agency guidelines don’t account for lead in drinking water once it reaches your home; they’re only designed for reducing lead levels before water is delivered to communities.
What does this mean? Community water systems may reduce lead to 0 mg/L, but lead water service lines may leach this toxic metal back into a drinking water supply on its way to customers’ homes. For this reason, the EPA guidelines aren’t entirely effective in ensuring lead-free drinking water.
🔎 How Can I Tell if Lead is in My Drinking Water?
Lead is a tasteless, odorless, colorless metal. Because of this, you won’t be able to see, taste, or smell lead, so there’s no way to know whether you have lead in your drinking water.
Reading your annual Water Quality Report (Consumer Confidence Report) also won’t tell you for certain whether or not you’re drinking lead-contaminated water. Water Quality Reports only give you an indication of what your water contains before it is delivered to your home. They don’t account for lead that may enter your water supply through a lead service line or lead solder in your pipes.
The only effective, reliable method of identifying lead contamination is by getting your water tested.
A certified laboratory test is the most thorough and accurate way to test for lead in water. A lab report can tell you exactly how much lead your water contains, in mg/L or PPM. Most lab reports also highlight the potential health effects of lead in water and the best methods of lead removal.
Getting your water tested by a laboratory is a hands-off testing option. After you’ve taken a water sample and sent it to the laboratory via post, your results should be delivered to you within 1-2 weeks.
👩🏽⚕️ How Can I Protect My Family from Lead in Drinking Water?
Even mild lead exposure in water is dangerous because of lead’s cumulative properties. So, if you discover even traces of lead in your water, look at methods to reduce lead as soon as possible.
The best methods of removing or avoiding lead are:
- Install a reverse osmosis water filter – Reverse osmosis water systems are highly effective at removing more than 99.% of lead from tap water. These systems force water through a semi-permeable membrane with tiny pores, which reject most contaminants – including lead. Using an RO filtration system in your home guarantees virtually lead-free tap water.
- Use a water distiller – Distillers are another highly effective means of purifying tap water, and can remove up to 99.99% of lead. A distiller boils water until it evaporates. Contaminants that are unable to evaporate at the same temperature as water, including lead, are left behind in the boiling chamber, while water travels through a cooling corridor and condenses in a separate container.
- Install an NSF 53-certified filter – Water filters with an NSF 53 certification for lead removal are guaranteed to remove lead from your tap water. If a product is certified to NSF 53, it means that it has been rigorously third-party tested to determine its performance capabilities. Only products that are highly capable of contaminant removal achieve an official NSF certification.
- Avoid drinking or cooking with hot water – Hot water is known to absorb lead more easily than cold water. So, boiling water from your cold faucet is safer than using hot water straight from your faucet for cooking and drinking. Avoid making baby formula with hot water.
- Replace your pipes – Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do about lead contamination if your water is delivered through a lead service line. However, if your home was built before 1986, your own property’s pipes and plumbing fixtures may be leaching this contaminant into your water. In this case, consider hiring a plumber to replace your lead pipes as soon as possible.
If a drinking water test detects lead, stop drinking your water and switch to bottled water while you decide on the best method of lead removal. Bottled water is expensive and wasteful, so it’s not an ideal long-term solution.
⚠️ How Else Can I Be Exposed to Lead?
Aside from lead in drinking water, we may also be exposed to lead from the following sources:
- Baby formula
- Certain plastics
- Lead-based paints (especially in homes built before 1978, when lead in paints was banned)
- Old toys and jewelry
- Dust and fumes from lead solder
- Aviation gas
- Weights (for lifting and fishing)
- Some cosmetics
- Some herbal remedies, including tablets and powders for arthritis, colic, infertility, and stomach pain
- Certain spices imported from Vietnam, Syria, and India
- Industrial environments and processes, like building demolition sites, melting or manufacturing of lead products, recycling facilities, and painting or sanding
Children are especially at risk from lead exposure. The EPA estimates that around 20% of a person’s total lead exposure comes from drinking water, but babies and infants that drink mixed baby formula may receive up to 60% of their total lead exposure from their water.
📌 Note that showering in lead-contaminated water is safe. Human skin doesn’t absorb lead, so only drinking tap water containing lead or inhaling lead in the air is dangerous to human health.
📝 Where Can I Get More Information?
You can find more information about lead in water, including the risks of lead and how lead is monitored, in the links below.