The prevalence of lead in drinking water isn’t an isolated issue. This article will provide helpful information on the dangers of lead and the harmful effects of consuming lead in drinking water, and answers basic questions about why lead is dangerous, how it got into our drinking water, where it is found and who is at risk. It also further reviews water regulations and discusses strategies to protect against this ubiquitous toxin, as well as developing approaches to proactively reduce lead contamination.
What Exactly is Lead
Lead is a naturally occurring element found in small amounts in the earth’s crust that has been widely used since 5000 B.C. It is soft, highly malleable, ductile, and a relatively poor conductor of electricity. Modern uses for lead include use in applications in metal products, cables, pipelines, paints, pesticides, ammunition and batteries.
Why is Lead so Dangerous
Lead cannot be seen, tasted, or smelled in water and can still be found in older pipelines, solder, and in brass fittings in today’s plumbing systems, which is what makes it so dangerous. Per the CDC, it can affect the blood and the cardiovascular, central nervous, endocrine, gastrointestinal, reproductive, and urinary systems.
Who's at Risk
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that drinking water can make up 20 percent or more of a person’s exposure to lead, which puts everyone at risk. Babies can get between 40 percent and 60 percent of their exposure to lead by drinking formula mixed with contaminated water. Lead exposure is the most common environmental disease in young children. Children under 7 years of age are especially vulnerable as their nervous systems are still developing and because their body mass is so small.
How Does Lead Get into Our Water
The most common source of lead in drinking water is corrosion of plumbing materials (pipes, solder, fixtures, and faucets), not the actual water supply itself. Through corrosion, a chemical reaction between the water and plumbing materials that dissolves or wears away the metal, lead can leach into the water.
How Much is Too Much
Lead can be harmful even at low exposure levels because it builds up in our bodies with time. This buildup can result in lead poisoning. The Safe Drinking Water Act (passed by Congress in 1974) and The Lead and Copper Rule (established by the EPA in 1991) requires public drinking water to have less than 15 ppb (parts per billion) of lead. The target consumption level should always be zero.
Where is Lead Found
Common places to watch for lead in the water supply include schools, parks, homes, offices, and construction sites. Many homes built before the 1980's still have lead solder connecting copper pipes that contain lead. Outdated plumbing systems in school buildings can leach lead into the water students and staff drink throughout the day.
Why is There Lead in Schools
Not all schools are required to test their water supply for lead, only those regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. There are more than 90,000 public schools and 500,000 child care facilities not regulated under the SDWA. These facilities may or may not be conducting voluntary drinking water quality testing. Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and Virginia are the only six states in the U.S. to require schools to test for lead.
Increasing Water Regulations
In Illinois, Public Act 99-0922 required schools and day care centers to sample water for lead contamination. This act required school buildings built before Jan. 1, 1987, to complete water testing by the end of 2017. Schools built between Jan. 2, 1987 and Jan. 1, 2000, must complete testing by the end of 2018. The act requires parents and guardians of students to be notified of lead results greater than or equal to five parts per billion.
Effective January 2014, the lead-free definition was changed. Now lead-free components must have a weighted average of less than 0.25 percent lead for surfaces in contact with potable water. The standard for solder is still 0.2 percent or less lead.
What Can You Do
Take action and review the EPA-required local Consumer Confidence Report. Water quality reports are available to the public by July 1 each year. However, the only sure way to know if a water source is contaminated by lead is to test it for lead.
A list of commercial laboratories which conduct testing can be found at local health departments or state environmental departments. Priority areas for testing as suggested by the EPA are:
- Drinking fountains, both bubbler and water cooler styles.
- Kitchen/food preparation area sinks (cafeteria and classroom).
- Classroom combination sinks and drinking fountains.
- Home economics room sinks.
- Teachers lounge and medical office sinks.
- Classroom sinks in special education classrooms.
- Any sink known to be visibly used for consumption.
You should also treat water at the point of consumption. Use cold water for cooking and drinking. Hot water is more likely to contain higher levels of lead. Regularly clean your faucet aerator where lead particles may be trapped.
You can also use a filtration system. To ensure a filtration system is of the highest quality, verify it has been certified for specific reduction claims by an ANSI-accredited independent certifying organization. Water Quality Association (WQA) and NSF International are two such organizations. Look for filters certified to NSF/ANSI 53 or 58 specifically for lead reduction.