Lead A Growing Concern
Across North America, the presence of lead contamination in the water supply has been in the news.
From Toronto to Flint to Newark there have been a growing number of cases of lead contamination affecting water supplies across the U.S. and Canada.
We have created this guide to help separate fact from fiction, and provide you with the information you need to make informed choices. This can help you to protect you and your family from the effects of lead poisoning.
Before we do that. It’s helpful to understand what lead is, and how it can affect our bodies.
What Is Lead?
Lead is a naturally occurring element whose history dates back to many ancient civilizations that used it due to its ease of use in extraction and malleability. The word “plumbing” comes from the Latin plumbum for lead. It was the Romans who began using lead pipes for their plumbing systems to prevent water theft.
Although lead has been found to be dangerous to our water supply, lead has been used safely in many common items like car batteries, ceramics, fishing supplies, firearms, construction, sailboat manufacturing, and even gasoline for many years. These everyday items would likely be much more expensive without lead, and much of the ancient uses might not have ever materialized if this element were never discovered.
How Does Lead Affect the Body?
The negative effects of lead as well as the positives have been known to man since early Greek, Roman, and Chinese civilizations. Lead acts as a neurotoxin, causing damage to the central nervous system as well as the brain. Lead poisoning can cause both short and longer-term health issues.
Lead is extremely dangerous to unborn fetuses, infants, and children under the age of six. Bottle fed infants who receive a tap water and formula mixture as their main source of food are at a significant risk. Extensive led exposure in children can result in behavioral problems, reduced IQ, shortened attention span, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
While exposure to lead in the water supply is a fairly recent concern, its origins go back decades. Lead pipes were used in much of the distribution pipelines in North America and many of these old pipes, some being over 100 years old, are now leaking toxic residue. Lead pipes were also used in the construction of home plumbing systems. Because of this homes, and apartment buildings built before 1986 may have lead pipes, or have lead solder connecting copper pipes.
How Does Lead Enter the Home?
Water Mains and Service Lines
Water usually leaves local reservoirs and treatment facilities without lead. Instead lead can leach into tap water if there is lead in the municipal water mains or service lines that connect to your home. Most modern pipes that carry water in the street are made of iron or steel and do not add lead to your water. However, older water mains and service lines which contain lead may still be incorporated into the existing infrastructure.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that about 7.3 million lead service lines now deliver water to customers across the country.
According to the American Water Works Association, Lead is commonly a problem in very new homes and old homes built before 1930. Older homes are more likely to have plumbing fixtures containing lead. On the other hand, the plumbing in newer homes has not yet built up mineral deposits that can help prevent lead from leaching into a home’s drinking water. Also, systems that deliver soft water, and water that is more acidic and higher in dissolved oxygen can be more corrosive, increasing the risk of lead contamination.
That means they’re most likely to contain some lead plumbing. According to the U.S. Census
Bureau, that’s more than half of the country’s housing units.
Am I at Risk?
It’s not always easy to find out. A USA Today Network Investigation found excessive lead levels in almost 2,000 water systems across the United States. In these cases, the lead levels exceeded the EPA’s “action level” of 15 ppb (parts per billion).
While there is no minimum “safe” level for lead, this is the standard used to indicate whether drinking water supplies are at risk. The same investigation also discovered at least 180 of these water systems failed to follow federal rules to notify consumers about the high lead levels.
Based on this standard, tests for cities, rural subdivisions, and even schools and day cares serving water to 6 million people have found excessive and harmful levels of lead.
According to the USA Today investigation, the EPA advisory council, whose members include experts from water utilities and state agencies, recommended that EPA take numerous steps to strengthen the existing regulations.
These steps include developing a “household action level” that would trigger public health actions when lead contamination reaches certain levels, and ensuring the public receives more information about the risks they face.
Since 2012, nearly 2,000 water systems across the U.S. have found elevated lead levels in tap water samples, a public health concern that requires them to notify customers and take action. The following map was compiled by USA Today and shows the number of cases in each U.S. state where lead levels have exceeded the EPA’s action level of 15 ppb.
Testing Your Water
If you are unsure whether your public water system is served with lead pipes, you can contact your supplier and ask them about the age and type of pipes used in the distribution system. If the distribution system does in fact contain lead or you are unaware of the material of the pipes on your side, you should be more proactive about your options to have your water tested. Lead cannot be detected with “the naked eye” nor can it be smelled or tasted. The only accurate way to measure your water for lead is to have it professionally tested.
Some steps you can take include:
- Call your local water system and ask about testing.
- If renting or living in shared housing, call your landlord or homeowner’s association.
- Test your home water using available chemical tests
The lead water test is quite simple; the homeowner collects water samples from their tap and sends them to a lab for analysis. In some scenarios the testing labs will send trained technicians out to your home to take samples. If you are collecting the samples yourself, be sure to take a sample of the water immediately as the tap is turned on as this is often the most indicative sample of lead in your water.
Flush your cold water pipes
- If you haven’t used a faucet for more than six hours, run the water until it reaches the coldest temperature possible.
- This entire process can take anywhere from five seconds to a few minutes and depends on how recently heavy water usage has flowed through the pipes.
- Water that has been sitting in pipes for longer periods of time can potentially have more lead in it which is why a flush is advisable.
Avoid hot water for consumption
- Hot water is more likely to contain higher concentrations of lead so it is recommended that homeowners who are at risk for lead exposure use the above advice for flushing pipes and only use water from the cold-water tap for consumption.
These solutions can be helpful in the short term, but won’t address long term problems with lead. If you are concerned about lead in your home water supply, there are other options you can take.
For some, commercially bottled water may be an option. The problem is that bottled water can be expensive, and produces a great deal of environmental waste from plastic bottles.
Water filters are an affordable option that allows you to use your own plumbing while filtering out lead and other harmful substances. Before purchasing a filter, look at the spec sheets to see that if it is certified to remove lead and by what percentage. There are three key points where a water filter can be applied.
1. Entering Your Home
If you own your own home, you can opt to add a filtration system at the point where your home connects to the service line. This can help reduce the risk of lead entering your home. These “whole-house” systems can be purchased and installed with a little help from your local plumber.
2. Under the Sink
If you don’t own your own home, or are in a shared housing situation such as a duplex or condominium, a “whole house” filter may not be possible. In this case, an under-sink system may be an option. These filters are designed to connect to a kitchen or bathroom sink and have filters that can be replaced on a regular basis. Because the greatest harm from lead comes from water consumed through drinking or cooking rather than bathing, this can help reduce your risk.
3. After the Faucet
For renters, or those living in dormitories or apartment housing, an under sink filter may not be an option either. In this case, a filtration pitcher may be a good short term option. Pitchers are relatively inexpensive, and can be filled from your sink and stored in the refrigeration. Not all commercial pitchers can filter out lead, so make sure that the pitcher is certified to remove lead before you buy.
Replace Existing Plumbing
If you have a home with lead pipes, it is possible to get them replaced with lead-free materials. The average repair cost can range between $4,000 and $10,000. Also remember that service lines are your responsibility while inside your property line.
We hope that you have found this guide helpful, and we hope that you will help us to spread the word about the negative effects of lead in drinking water, its prevalence in North America, and the options your friends and neighbors have to eliminate this harmful contaminant from their water.