October 23rd marks the beginning of Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. In past years, the attention has been largely on lead-based paints and reducing the risk exposure in your home. But with all that has occurred with water issues in Flint, MI, drinking water at home, in schools, and just about everywhere else, needs to be suspect because tap water can be a source of lead exposure.
How does lead get into drinking water?
Municipal Service Lines
The first thing is to understand that water leaving your municipal or public treatment facility is unlikely to contain high levels of lead. The issue relates to the service lines that deliver water from the main distribution lines to individual homes or businesses. Dating back to the early 1900s, it was very common for those service lines to be constructed entirely or partially of lead pipe. In fact, it’s estimated that 10 million homes and buildings in the US would have some lead in their service lines. Those are most likely to be found in the Northeast and Midwest, reflecting the development of the nation.
The use of lead in plumbing fixtures in home and building construction was common before 1980, meaning that there are as many as 75 million US homes likely to be affected. Although that number equates to every second house, the distribution is again is skewed to the Northeast. And it’s important to note that homes serviced by private wells are not exempt. Both your home and your well could have some lead plumbing fixtures, depending on when they were constructed.
Simply having lead-based pipes feeding your home or even in your home does not mean your water will have high levels of lead. But, if your water supply is at all corrosive, there is a good possibility that some of that lead will leach out or be released into your water. Luckily there are some obvious signs of corrosion to help you spot the trouble. These include bluish-green stains in sinks and tubs, metallic tasting water, especially after it has been sitting (for example, first thing in the morning), or small pin-hole leaks in your plumbing. If you see these signs or if you are simply concerned about lead in your drinking water, have your water tested!
Get the Lead Out
To avoid consuming lead in drinking water, the general advice is as follows:
- Run your water for at least 2 minutes before using it for cooking or drinking. This flushes out the lines and is particularly important when your water has not been run for six or more hours, like overnight.
- Use only COLD water for drinking and cooking, as hot water is likely to contain higher levels of lead.
However, if you want to be more confident that your family is not consuming lead even in small amounts, then consider getting a water treatment system.
Water treatment for Lead
Solving the issue from a health perspective may be as straight forward as installing a specialized carbon filter to remove the lead at your drinking water tap. Note that carbon filters can be of varying grades or compositions and will therefore not always have lead removal capabilities. Be sure to check the manufacturer’s specifications.
The carbon filter approach, however, will not stop the lead from leaching into your water, nor protect your home’s fixtures from further damage. To accomplish that, it will be necessary to correct the corrosiveness of your water supply at the point of entry, where the water enters your home. Factors like pH, low hardness, and even temperature can contribute to water being corrosive, so a broader water analysis will be required. You’ll also want to involve a water treatment specialist in selecting and installing appropriate water treatment equipment. If you are on well water, this is still likely to include specialized carbon filtration, since components of your well, like the casing or the pump itself, may be the source of the lead.
And of course, there is always the option of replacing the lead pipes or plumbing. While this can be very costly, it is a permanent solution. Contact your city regarding any service line replacement programs and consult a professional plumber if you are interested in updating your home's plumbing.