About Lead in Water

LEAD & HEAVY METALS
IN YOUR DRINKING WATER

Seriously, you don't want these guys in your water.

LEAD IN DRINKING WATER

JUST THE FACTS

  • Lead was cheap and easy to use, so for a long time we made our water pipes out of it
  • You can’t see lead in drinking water (Those news story images can be misleading)
  • Lead gets in your water when it leaches from lead pipes, and fittings (could be used up until 2014)
  • There are still millions and millions of lead water pipes in service all over the country
  • No level of lead is safe
  • Lead causes serious health effects, it’s most dangerous for children but can also cause problems for adults of all ages
  • ​​​​Only eight states have laws that require lead-in-water testing in schools.
  • EPA starts trying to solve a problem when they find 15ppb of lead in water (The lead in copper rule)
  • Even if the EPA gets water back into compliance (under 10ppb), filtering water once is comes out of the tap is the only way to get the most lead out of your drinking water.
  • ppb stands for parts per billion (1ppb is like a drop of ink in a tanker truck of water)
  • Getting lead out of water is difficult, and most experts recommend an NSF53 certified filter (for lead)
  • Flint Michigan has a problem because they switched their water source, didn’t adjust the pH properly, and the water leached lead from pipes.

HOW LEAD GETS INTO DRINKING WATER

Water service lines can leach lead into water

Water leaving the treatment plant is tested for lead and other contaminants. At that point, your water begins it's journey traveling to miles and miles of service lines. Many of these service lines can contain lead, and water conditions can cause that lead to leach into your water.

Lead can be found in solder, and drinking taps

After traveling through the service lines, the water arrives at your home, school or daycare. This is where the problem continues. As recently as 1987 lead solder could be used in plumbing in homes, and as recently as 2014 copper faucets and valves used in plumning could contain lead.

Here in lies the core problem with getting lead out of our water. Our cities and towns need to replace lead service lines, our homes, offices and schools must replace lead and brass plumbing features, but we don't know where they all are.

Solving the lead problem at scale will cost billions of dollars, and take years. Even then, without proper documentation of lead use in these pipes and fixtures, we won't know when we have solved the problem.

The pH level of water traveling through the pipes, can cause the lead and corrson to leach into the water system. This is why water can leave the municipality clean, and come out of the tap contaminated with lead.

THE HISTORY OF LEAD IN PLUMBING

Most of us know that lead is bad so it’s hard to fathom the possibility of there being lead in the water. In fact, lead is one of the best studied toxic-substances and we know more about the negative health effects than almost any other chemical. This abundance of information however is unfortunately due to lead’s predominate use throughout history starting in the Roman Empire and extending through the 1990s.

In Plumbo Nos

The Roman Empire is credited with being the first regime to mass-distribute lead due to their massive mining operations. Lead itself does not occur in an elemental state but is a by-product of silver and gold mining. It is readily available, easy malleable, is resistant to corrosion, and is easy to melt at low temperatures making it an ideal material for creating products out of.

The Romans used lead extensively. The used it to create plates and silverware, cooking utensils, urns for wine, makeup, and indoor plumbing. In fact, the word plumbing itself is derived from Latin.

Plumbum.

That’s Latin for lead.

Fond of bathing, the Romans constructed great aqueducts to transport water from miles away to baths and recreation centers. They were the original plumbers, lead workers who were responsible for measuring and laying out pipe, soldering, installing, and repairing the infrastructure that moved water around cities such as Rome and Pompeii.

It should be noted that not all plumbing was created out of lead, some was created using terra cotta pipes.

With the decline in the Roman Empire so came the decline in plumbing. Bath houses came to be viewed as places of debauchery and cleanliness decreased in value.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s when diseases like typhoid and Cholera were rampant that the link between bacteria and disease was discovered by Louis Pasteur. Plumbing, especially to keep clean water isolated from wastewater, became of increasing importance.

The New World and Lead

Almost as soon as the first colonists settled in the United States the mining and smelting of lead began. Lead was originally sought out for its use in ammunition and by 1621 the metal was being mined and forged in Virginia but it wouldn’t be until later that lead would be used to transport water.

Early water distribution systems were created using bored-out logs, usually from hemlock or elm trees. In 1652 Boston unveiled the country’s first water distribution system using these hollowed out trees in order to provide water for firefighting and domestic use.  

There were several problems with using wooden pipes however. Uneven ground would cause the pipes to sag, creating pockets of stagnant water that developed a woody taste over time. As cities expanded more pressure was needed to move the water farther and farther and this would cause the wooden pipes to split.

As wooden pipes ceased to be useful, a switch to iron was made. The city of Philadelphia became a global leader in plumbing when it became the first city to distribute water using entirely cast iron pipes in 1804. Other cities such as Chicago, New York, and Boston followed suit.

As plumbing knowledge evolved, so did the ease of bringing water inside homes. Instead of getting water from a pump in the street one could get water from a faucet inside your house.

Designing piping to move water around cities was fairly easy and straightforward but when it came to connecting buildings to water mains things became more complex. There were a lot of pipes and conduits in the streets so piping that was flexible was highly desireable.

The connections from water mains to buildings are known as service lines and creating these pipes out of lead became the most practical solution for engineers.

Lead in the 20th Century

By 1900, of the 50 largest cities in the United States all but six or seven of them has installed lead piping. New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Saint Louis and Boston all used lead services to varying degrees.

Many local building codes mandated that lead service pipes be used for constructing service lines. Lead is more durable to corrosion than iron piping and many of the lead pipes that were being used in 1900 are still in use today.

A committee on service pipes submitted a preliminary report to Engineering News, a journal of civil engineering and construction that was issued weekly, on the use of lead service pipes in 1916. The report stated:

Lead is in many respects the most satisfactory material to use for service pipes. Its pliability and its comparative freedom from corrosive action make it almost ideal from a mechanical standpoint. The cost of lead pipe of sufficient thickness safely to withstand the pressure is more than the cost of many other materials used for service, but in a paved street the greater duration of life probably more than compensates for the extra cost, and in places where the streets are occupied by other pipes and conduits the ease of getting over and under these obstructions with a flexible pipe is a great advantage.

The article continues:

The most serious objection to the use of lead pipe for services is the possibility that the water may dissolve enough lead from the pipe to cause lead poisoning. It is certain that many cases of lead poisoning have been caused by the use of lead services. On the other hand, lead has always been used for services in most of the large places without any unfavorable effects.

Engineers knew lead pipes were bad and could poison people but didn't understand why in some areas people became poisoned and in others people were fine.

It seems to be practically impossible to determine definitely in advance what the effect of any water on lead pipe will be, as the laboratory results fail in many cases to show the action which will occur in actual practice. Tests of service pipes in use for a considerable period are the only safe guides.

This highlights a key point in the use of lead pipes.

- Written by Kristen Brastard, Phd

HEALTH EFFECTS OF LEAD IN THE BODY

FILTERING LEAD OUT OF WATER CAN HELP PREVENT THESE HEALTH EFFECTS

The health effects of lead on children and adults

LEAD IS A PROBLEM EVERYWHERE

Number of lead level exceedances in the US
Average amount of lead found in EPA water sample tests out of compliance
The number of people potentially affected by lead contamination found in water
Risks of lead at home

RISKS AT HOME

2,000 water systems spanning all 50 states have shown excessive levels of lead contamination over the past four years. – USA Today

Between 6.5 to 10 million homes nationwide still have lead pipes and plumbing.

EXPENSIVE & TIME-CONSUMING

The EPA estimates there are 7-11 million lead service lines in the US. It would cost $30 billion and take decades to replace them.

Risks of lead in our plumbing

LEAD IN OUR PLUMBING

Although municipal water plants are required to test water, lead typically enters water when it passes through service lines & fittings after it has exited the treatment plant.

Lead in drinking water usually comes from the corrosion of older fixtures or from solder that connects pipes. Buildings built before 1986 are at higher risk for lead contamination.

Risks of lead at school

RISKS AT SCHOOL

The EPA estimates there are 7-11 million lead service lines in the US. It would cost $30 billion and take decades to replace them.

Only 10% of our nation’s schools are required to test for lead.

WHAT ARE THE RULES ON LEAD?

The Lead and Copper Rule    

Since 1991, the EPA has established a rule that states that no drinking water system (school, hospital, apartment, home, etc.) can have lead concentrations exceed an action level of 15 ppb or copper concentrations exceed an action level of 1.3 ppm in more than 10% of taps sampled. If the action level for lead is exceeded, the system must also inform the public about steps they should take to protect their health and may have to replace lead service lines under their control to eliminate the problem and fall below the concentration standards set forth in the regulation.

The EPA action limit for lead in drinking water

The action level for Lead (Pb) is 15 ppb. The action level for Copper (Cu) concentrations is 1.3 ppm.

The Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act

In 2011 Congress passed the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act (RLDWA) revising the definition of lead free by lowering the maximum lead content of the wetted surfaces of plumbing products (such as pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings and fixtures) from 8% to a weighted average of 0.25%. Beginning in 2012, all plumbing fixtures (pipes, fittings, etc.) would have a maximum lead content of 0.25%, vs the previous level of 8%.

ABOUT THE NSF53 STANDARD

NSF is the National Sanitation Foundation founded in 1944 with a mission to protect and improve global human health. NSF is an independent organization which develops public health standards and standardized tests to evaluate the health and safety as well as the performance claims of consumer goods. To have a NSF standard certification on a consumer product means more than the manufacturer simply paid a trade organization fee. The certified listing indicates that an in depth technical evaluation by scientific experts, yearly manufacturing audits, and certified independent third-party test evaluations conducted under published standardized test protocols has been performed.

NSF/ANSI standards are developed over years with panels of experts which include participants from private, government, and academic sectors. The standards developed sometimes have performance requirements for drinking water contaminants that even exceed the USEPA requirements. The NSF/ANSI 53 standard for lead reduction performance is a good example; the USEPA requirement for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion and the NSF/ANSI 53 standard requirement is 10 parts per billion. When a product has a certified lead-reduction listing available on an independent third-party site you can be assured that it was tested under rigorous conditions not just once or twice but for its entire rated service life under well-defined test conditions. Why aren’t more bottles and pitchers certified listed for lead reduction – because it is a difficult test to pass!  

The NSF standard for lead reduction requires the product to be tested under two pH conditions to evaluate that both dissolved (soluble) lead and particulate lead (tested at pH 6.5 and 8.5 respectively) are reduced by the product. Both forms of lead can be found in drinking water and each form of lead requires a different mechanism to be removed from water.

WHO IS TESTING FOR LEAD IN OUR WATER?

This is done on a state by state, city by city basis by varying government agencies. Typically this only done at the request of the individual and done on individual taps. This is the only way to know for sure.

The only way to know the amount of lead in your household water is to have your water tested.

Many certified labs perform these tests for $25 to $50 per test.

ARE SCHOOLS TESTING FOR LEAD?

EPA is responsible for ensuring the safety of the nation's drinking water in public water supplies. EPA estimates that approximately 8,000 schools and child care facilities maintain their own water supply and are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). However, there are approximately 98,000 public schools and 500,000 child care facilities not regulated under the SDWA. These unregulated schools and child care facilities may or may not be conducting voluntary drinking water quality testing.

There is no federal law requiring testing of drinking water in schools and childcare facilities, except for those that have and/or operate their own public water system and therefore are subject to comply with the SDWA.

Remember, water is highly regulated and likely to be lead-free leaving the water treatment plant. However, almost all contamination happens between the water treatment plant and the tap. The only way to ensure your water is lead free is to test and treat at the tap (filter the actual tap water).

HOW DO WE GET LEAD OUT OF WATER?

Solving the problem of lead in our drinking water is going to take years, and billions of dollars. The problem is widespread, and the causes while well known, are not well documented. Most investigative reporting, and government agencies reccomend taking action at the "Point of Use". This means filtering the water once it comes out of your tap.

We think of it as taking control of your water.

There are many products on the market that make lead reduction claims (99%, "Removes Lead", etc.) however these claims are not independantly validated. Most publications will reccomend that you buy a product that has received the NSF53 Certification for lead reduction, which is an ANSI standard set by the National Sanitation Foundation.

The NSF53 standard is rigorous and expensive to pass. Many filters are NSF42 certified, but the NSF42 certification is for contaminants such as chlorine and zinc.

The number of filters that are NSF53 certified to reduce lead are limited in the USA.

The NSF53 certification for lead reduction is difficult to acheive, because it requires products to remove both "Soluble Lead" which is lead that is dissolved in water, as well as "Insoluble lead" which are small lead particles in the water. The test also requires you to remove these contaminants in a range of water conditions.

Non certified products make claims on their performance based on testing standards that can be designed to make them look good, but without the certification there is no validation that the product works as advertised. When it comes to your water you want science, not marketing.

There are 2 agencies that test and certify to the NSF53 standard for Lead reduction, The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) and the Water Quality Association (WQA).

You can find a list of products they have certified at the links below:

Search WQA Certified Products

Browse NSF Certified Products

THE CRISIS IN FLINT MICHIGAN

The problem began when the city switched its water supply in 2014. Almost immediately, residents of Flint started complaining about the quality of the water. City and state officials denied for months that there was a serious problem. By that time, supply pipes had sustained major corrosion and lead was leaching into the water. The city switched back to its original water supply late last year, but it was too late to reverse the damage to the pipes.

High blood lead levels are especially harmful to children and pregnant women, and can cause "learning disabilities, behavioral problems and mental retardation," the World Health Organization says.

Here's how the crisis unfolded:

June 2012-April 2013: Flint Looks For Cheaper Water

Flint officials explore whether the city can save money by switching from its current provider, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). City and state officials weigh an alternative: Flint could build its own pipeline to connect to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA).

April 25, 2014: Switch To The Flint River

Until Flint's pipeline connecting to the KWA is operational, the city needs an interim source of water and turns to the Flint River, which was also its main water source until the 1960s.

May 2014: Residents Complain

Some Flint residents complain about the smell and color of the new water, which is 70 percent harder than its previous water source, according to MLive.

Feb. 25 2015: Tests Show High Lead Levels In Home

A city test "reveals high lead content in the water of a Flint resident's home." As Michigan Radio reported, the water at Lee Anne Walters' home "turns up with a lead content of 104 parts per billion. Fifteen parts per billion is the [Environmental Protection Agency]'s limit for lead in drinking water."

In April, Walters says her child was diagnosed with lead poisoning. An independent test done by Virginia Tech researchers finds lead levels at 13,200 ppb — water is considered hazardous waste at 5,000 ppb.

September 2015 : Virginia Tech Team Finds 'Serious' Lead Levels In Flint

A team from Virginia Tech tests hundreds of homes for lead in Flint, and says that "preliminary tests show 'serious' levels of lead in city water." "The levels that we have seen in Flint are some of the worst that I have seen in more than 25 years working in the field," Dr. Marc Edwards, a member of the Virginia Tech team.

Sept. 24 2015: Study Finds Elevated Lead Levels In Children

A study from the local Hurley Medical Center found that 2.1 percent of children age 5 and under had elevated blood lead levels prior to the switch to Flint River water, compared to 4.0 percent after the switch.

Sept. 25 2015: City Lead Advisory

Flint issues a lead advisory to residents. "While the City is in full compliance with the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, this information is being shared as part of a public awareness campaign to ensure that everyone takes note that no level of lead is considered safe,".

Oct. 2 2015: Water Filters And Testing

An action plan released by Snyder says the city and state will provide free filters and water testing for Flint residents, among other things.

Oct. 16 2015: Switch Back To Detroit Water Supply

Flint switches back to the Detroit water supplier, which is now called the Great Lakes Water Authority.

Dec. 14 2015: Mayor Declares State Of Emergency

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver declares a state of emergency over the elevated lead levels in the city's water. "I am requesting that all things be done necessary to address this state of emergency declaration, effective immediately."

Jan. 2016: Snyder and Obama Declare State Of Emergency

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declares a state of emergency in Genesee County due to the lead in Flint's drinking water.

President Obama declared a state of emergency less than two weeks later. The move "means FEMA is authorized to provide equipment and resources to the people affected. Federal funding will help cover the cost of providing water, water filters and other items."

Jan. 21 2016: EPA Issues Emergency Order

The EPA issues an emergency order to take action on the Flint water crisis. "EPA has determined that the City of Flint's and the State of Michigan's responses to the drinking water crisis in Flint have been inadequate and that these failures continue," the emergency order reads.

Feb. 17 2016: Gov. Snyder Testifies

Snyder, along with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, testifies before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "Let me be blunt," the governor says in his opening statement. "This was a failure of government at all levels. Local, state and federal officials — we all failed the families of Flint."

March 21 2016: 'Next Steps' For Flint

Snyder outlines state agencies' goals in addressing the Flint crisis.

The action plan includes providing professional support for children under 6 with elevated lead levels, replacing water fixtures in public facilities, replacing the city's 8,000 lead service lines, and increasing resources for schools.

April 12 2016: Researchers Say Flint's Water Is Still Unsafe

Despite improved lead levels in Flint's water, it remains unsafe to drink without a filter, according to results released from Virginia Tech researchers.

July 29: Criminal Charges Filed Against 6 Officials

Schuette announced criminal charges against six more current and former state employees, bringing the total number of people charged to nine.

All six are charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy, and willful neglect of duty. Rosenthal is also charged with tampering with evidence, for allegedly requesting water tests that did not show elevated lead.

THE PROBLEM OF LEAD IN CHICAGO

A Tribune analysis of the results shows lead was found in water drawn from nearly 70 percent of the 2,797 homes tested during the past two years. Tap water in 3 of every 10 homes sampled had lead concentrations above 5 parts per billion, the maximum allowed in bottled water by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Alarming amounts of the toxic metal turned up in water samples collected throughout the city, the newspaper’s analysis found, largely because Chicago required the use of lead service lines between street mains and homes until Congress banned the practice in 1986.

Under the city’s plumbing code — the same ordinance that for nearly a century mandated the use of lead pipes to convey water to single-family homes and small apartment buildings — individual property owners are responsible for maintaining service lines. The mayor’s office has said it is up to homeowners, not the city, to decide if it is worth replacing the lead pipes at their own expense.

City and EPA officials advise that residents can protect themselves by flushing household plumbing for three to five minutes when water hasn’t been used for several hours. But in one of five Chicago homes tested since January 2016, the Tribune analysis found, samples contained high levels of lead after water had been running for three minutes.

Water from Lake Michigan generally is lead-free after leaving the city’s treatment plants; it becomes contaminated only after passing through service lines and internal plumbing made of lead. Levels of the toxic metal in tap water can vary widely between homes and during different times of day, depending on water usage, the length of the service line and other factors that can limit the effectiveness of corrosion-inhibiting chemicals added to the water supply.

Lead is unsafe to consume at any level, according to the EPA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ingesting tiny concentrations can permanently damage the developing brains of children and contribute to heart disease, kidney failure and other health problems later in life. A peer-reviewed study published last month in The Lancet, a London-based medical journal, estimated that more than 400,000 deaths a year in the U.S. are linked to lead exposure — or 18 percent of all deaths.

There is no federal standard for the amount of lead found in tap water at individual homes, but studies have reported harmful effects when concentrations exceed the FDA’s standard for bottled water. In a recent peer-reviewed study, EPA scientists cautioned that when children under age 7 drink water containing more than 5 ppb of lead on average, the amount of the metal in their blood can rise above CDC health guidelines.

Utilities are considered to be in compliance with federal water quality regulations as long as 90 percent of the homes tested have lead levels below 15 ppb, a standard the EPA set nearly three decades ago because the agency thought it could be met with corrosion-inhibiting chemicals. Chicago conducts this type of testing in just 50 homes every three years — the minimum required — and city officials say the results show residents have no cause for concern.

The Tribune first reported in 2016 that most of the Chicago homes tested for regulatory purposes were owned by water department employees or retirees living on the Far Northwest and Far Southwest Sides. The limited testing typically found little or no lead in tap water at those homes.

WHAT OTHER CONTAMINANTS CAN BE FOUND IN TAP WATER?

Copper

How does it get in water?

Heightened levels of copper make their way into our water system through mining, farming, manufacturing operations, and as municipal or industrial wastewater is released into rivers and lakes. Copper can also get into drinking water either by directly contaminating well water or through corrosion of copper pipes if your water is acidic.

What are the health effects?

Too much copper can cause adverse health effects, including vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and nausea. It has also been associated with liver damage and kidney disease.

However, the human body has a natural mechanism for maintaining the proper level of copper in it. Children under one year old have not yet developed this mechanism and, as a result, are more vulnerable to the toxic effects of copper. People with Wilson's disease also have a problem with maintaining the proper balance and should also exercise particular care in limiting exposure to copper.

Mercury

How does it get in water?

Mercury is a metal that occurs naturally at low levels in rock, soil and water Mercury is also released into the air, water and land when fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) are burned; when municipal solid waste or medical waste is incinerated; during forest fires; and during some manufacturing processes.

Most mercury pollution is released into the air and then falls directly into water bodies or onto land, where it can be washed into waterways and our water systems

What are the health effects?

Mercury mostly affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, especially in unborn babies and young children. The more mercury that gets into a person's body, the longer the exposure time, and the younger the person, the more severe the effects are likely to be. Mercury is most harmful to the developing brains of unborn children and young children.

Mercury can interfere with the way nerve cells move into position as the brain develops, resulting in abnormal brain development. Prenatal exposure to mercury can affect the way children think, learn, and problem-solve later in life. Effects can also occur in adults at much higher doses. The earliest obvious signs of mercury poisoning in adults are tingling or numbness of the lips, tongue, fingers, or toes; fatigue; and blurred vision.

Chromium

How does it get in water?

The most common forms of chromium that occur in natural waters in the environment are chromium-3 and chromium-6. Chromium-3 and chromium-6 occur naturally in the environment, and are present in water from the erosion of chromium deposits found in rocks and soils.

Chromium-6 is also produced by industrial processes and manufacturing activities including discharges from steel and pulp mills among others. At many locations, chromium compounds have been released to the environment via leakage, poor storage, or improper disposal practices. Chromium compounds are very persistent in water as sediments.
 

A federal law called the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act requires facilities in certain industries, which manufacture, process, or use significant amounts of toxic chemicals, to report annually on their releases of these chemicals.

What are the health effects?

There are no known adverse health effects due to trivalent Chromium or Chromium-3.

Cadmium

Chlorine

How does it get in water?

Chlorine is added to the drinking water by municipalities for its disinfectant properties.

What are the health effects?

There are no definitive adverse health effects that have been demonstrated by elevated levels of chlorine exposure in drinking water. However, chronic Chlorine exposure has been linked to elevated instances of certain cancers and other general health aliments.

Zinc

How does it get in water?

High natural levels of zinc in water are usually associated with higher concentrations of other metals such as lead and cadmium. Most zinc is introduced into water by artificial pathways such as by-products of steel production or coal-fired power stations, or from the burning of waste materials.

What are the health effects?

Zinc is an essential nutrient for body growth and development, however drinking water containing high levels of zinc can lead to stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting.

Our commitment to ongoing research

We will continue to research, ad-to, and fact check this page as more investigative journalism and research is released. astrea is committed to providing you with the most up to date, factual information available about lead and contaminants in drinking water.