Health Effects of Lead
Lead is found throughout the environment in lead-based paint, air, soil, household dust, food, certain types of pottery (porcelain and pewter), and water. Lead can pose a significant risk to your health if too much of it enters your body.
Lead builds up in the body over many years and can cause damage to the brain, red blood cells and kidneys. The greatest risk is to young children and pregnant women. Amounts of lead that won’t hurt adults can slow down normal mental and physical development of growing bodies. In addition, a child at play may come into contact with sources of lead contamination – like dirt and dust – that rarely affect an adult. It is important to wash children’s hands and toys often, and to try to make sure they only put food in their mouths.
Lead in Drinking Water
Lead in drinking water, although rarely the sole cause of lead poisoning, can significantly increase a person’s total lead exposure, particularly the exposure of infants who drink baby formulas and concentrated juices that are mixed with water. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that drinking water can make up 20 percent or more of a person’s total exposure to lead.
How Lead Enters Water
Lead is unusual among drinking water contaminants in that it seldom occurs naturally in water supplies like rivers and lakes. Lead enters drinking water primarily as a result of the corrosion, or wearing away of materials containing lead in the water distribution system and household plumbing. These materials include lead-based solder used to join copper pipe, brass and chrome-plated brass faucets, and in some cases, pipes made of lead that connect houses and buildings to water mains (service lines). In 1986, Congress banned the use of lead solder containing greater than 0.2% lead, and restricted the lead content of faucets, pipes and other plumbing materials to 8.0%. Current U.S. lead laws limit the amount of allowable lead to less than 0.25 percent by weight. When you shop for faucets and other plumbing fixtures, be sure to read the label to verify that the products are certified for low lead content.
When water stands in lead pipes or plumbing systems containing lead for several hours or more, the lead may dissolve into your drinking water. This means the first water drawn from the tap in the morning, or later in the afternoon if the water has not been used all day, can contain elevated levels of lead.
Steps You Can Take to Reduce Exposure to Lead in Drinking Water
FLUSH YOUR SYSTEM.
If water hasn’t been used for several hours, run water from the tap you use for drinking and cooking for at least 30 seconds to 2 minutes or longer until it becomes cold or reaches a steady temperature before using it for drinking or cooking. Although toilet flushing or showering flushes water through a portion of the plumbing system, you still need to flush the water in each faucet before using it for drinking or cooking. Flushing tap water is a simple and inexpensive measure you can take to protect your health. It usually uses less than one to two gallons of water.
USE ONLY COLD WATER FOR COOKING AND DRINKING.
Do not cook with, or drink water from the hot water tap. Hot water can dissolve more lead more quickly than cold water. If you need hot water, draw water from the cold tap and then heat it.
USE BOTTLED WATER.
The steps described above will reduce the lead concentrations in your drinking water. However, if you are still concerned, you may wish to use bottled water for drinking and cooking.
For More Information
You can consult a variety of sources for additional information: Your family doctor or pediatrician can perform a blood test for lead and provide you with information about the health effects of lead. Federal and local government agencies that can be contacted include:
US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Website www.epa.gov/lead
National Lead Information Center: 1-800-424-LEAD
EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline: 1-800-426-4791
Made available by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and your local water utility.
Facts about Lead - Frequently Asked Questions
What are the Sources of Lead?
Lead is a common metal found in the environment. The main sources of lead exposure are lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust or soil, and some plumbing materials. In addition, lead can be found in certain types of pottery, pewter, brass fixtures, food, and cosmetics. Other sources include exposure in the work place and exposure from certain hobbies (lead can be carried on clothing or shoes). Drinking water is also a possible source of lead exposure.
How does lead get in my tap water?
Most sources of drinking water have no lead or very low levels of lead. Most lead gets into drinking water after the water leaves the local well or treatment plant and comes into contact with household plumbing materials containing lead. These include lead pipes, and lead solder (commonly used until 1986), as well as faucets, valves, and other components made of brass. Brass faucets, fittings, and valves, including those advertised as “lead-free,” may contribute lead to drinking water.
What types of plumbing fixtures contain lead?
Brass faucets, fittings, and valves, including those advertised as "lead-free," may contribute lead to drinking water. As of June 19, 1986, new or replaced water service lines and new household plumbing materials could not contain more than 8% lead. Lead content was further reduced on January 4, 2014, with the adoption of the requirement that the amount of lead used in plumbing materials intended for contact with drinking water must be certified as "lead-free" (weighted average of wetted surface cannot be more than 0.25% lead). Consumers should be aware of this when choosing fixtures and take appropriate precautions. Visit the NSF Web site at www.nsf.org to learn more about lead-containing plumbing fixtures.
What can I do if I’m not sure if I have lead solder or lead plumbing?
If you are unsure of the type of plumbing in your home, a licensed plumber would be able to verify this. In the meantime, before using the water for drinking or cooking, run your faucet to flush your faucet for 30 seconds – 2 minutes or longer until it becomes cold or reaches a steady temperature when the water has been stationary in your plumbing system for several hours such as when first waking in the morning or returning home from school or work.
What are the potential health effects of lead?
Lead can cause serious health problems if too much enters your body from drinking water or other sources. It can cause damage to the brain and kidneys, and can interfere with the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to all parts of your body. The greatest risk of lead exposure is to infants, young children, and pregnant women. Scientists have linked the effects of lead on the brain with lowered IQ in children. Adults with kidney problems and high blood pressure can be affected by low levels of lead more than healthy adults. Lead is stored in the bones, and it can be released later in life. During pregnancy, the child receives lead from the mother’s bones, which may affect brain development.
What is the potential exposure to lead from household drinking water?
EPA estimates that 10 to 20 percent of a person’s potential exposure to lead may come from drinking water. Infants who consume mostly formula mixed with lead-containing water can receive 40 to 60 percent of their exposure to lead from drinking water. Infants that drink formula prepared with lead-contaminated water are at a greater risk because of the large volume of water they drink relative to their body size. EPA estimates 40 to 60 percent of these infants’ exposure to lead can be from drinking water.
Why does the water utility sample for lead?
Under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act, USEPA set the action level for lead in drinking water at 15 ppb. This means utilities must ensure that water from the customer’s tap does not exceed this level in at least 90 percent of the homes sampled (90th percentile value). The action level is the concentration of a contaminant which, if exceeded, triggers treatment or other requirements which a water system must follow. If water from the tap does exceed this limit, then the utility must take certain steps to correct the problem. Because lead may pose serious health risks, the EPA set a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) of zero for lead. The MCLG is the level of a contaminant in drinking water below which there is no known or expected risk to health. MCLGs allow for a margin of safety.
Has my water system been tested for lead?
Since 1992, all public drinking water systems are required to regularly test for lead in the distribution system. Check your latest Water Quality Report that is published annually for results. This information is available on the website under ‘Water Quality Reports’ .
How is the water tested for lead?
The water must sit motionless in the customer’s pipes for at least 6 hours and then the first drawn water is collected from the kitchen faucet. It is the potential corrosion of the household plumbing that is being tested.
What homes are tested for lead?
Since lead enters tap water primarily through corrosion of household plumbing materials, homes that contain copper pipes with lead solder and/or are serviced by a lead service line, these are the homes that are preferred to be sampled. In 1986, Congress banned the use of solder containing more than 0.2% lead and restricted the lead content of faucets, pipes, and other plumbing materials so homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures and solder. However, new homes are also at risk: even legally “lead-free” plumbing may contain up to 0.25 percent lead. The most common problem is with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures which can leach significant amounts of lead into the water, especially hot water.
How do I know if my tap water contains lead?
If you are concerned about lead in your water, you may wish to have your water tested. Call us to find out how to get your water tested for lead, if any fees apply, and the location of labs that perform private testing.
Was my home’s water tested for lead?
If your house was tested for lead, you would have been notified that the test has taken place and received the results in the mail.
Why wasn’t my home’s water tested for lead?
According to the Safe Drinking Water Act, water utilities are to collect a certain number of samples (depending on the size of the water system).
My neighbor’s water was tested and found lead. Is my water safe?
Lead usually gets into drinking water through contact with plumbing materials such as lead pipes or lead solder, or faucets, valves, and fixtures made of brass (brass contains some lead). Since each home has different plumbing pipes and materials, test results are likely to be different for each home.
Does lead in water taste, smell, or look a certain way?
No, the only way to measure the lead levels in your home is by testing. See the question, “How can I get my water tested for lead?”
How can I get my water tested for lead?
If you are concerned about lead in your water, you may wish to have your water tested. Call us to find out how to get your water tested for lead, if any fees apply, and the location of labs that perform private testing. The following link is the EPA Website for Certification Programs and Certified Laboratories for Drinking Water:
What is the limit for lead?
The EPA has set an Action Level or limit of 15 parts per billion in no more than 10 percent of homes tested. After this Action Level has been exceeded, the water utility must take steps to notify customers and to reduce the corrosion/leaching of lead in drinking water. All customers that participated in the sampling are promptly notified of their individual results regardless of the level detected.
What does it mean when the Action Level has been exceeded?
The action level for lead is a level at which the regulatory agency is concerned about corrosion and requires water systems to take additional steps to protect users of the water. Our water system is required to notify our customers when our test results show levels of lead above the 15 ppb action level in more than 10% of the samples collected.All customers that participated in the sampling are promptly notified of their individual results regardless of the level detected.
How will I know if my water system exceeded the Action Level for lead?
Customers will be directly notified by mail or hand delivery if the water system’s test results show levels of lead above the 15 ppb action level in more than 10% of the samples collected.All customers that participated in the sampling are promptly notified of their individual results regardless of the level detected.
Will my filter remove lead?
Some filters can remove lead from drinking water. If you use a filter, be sure to get one that is tested and certified by an independent third party per the standards developed by NSF International. Be sure to maintain and replace a filter device in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions to protect water quality.
Does boiling water remove lead?
No, boiling water does not remove lead. Boiling water can concentrate lead levels and increase the amount of lead in water.
If I boil water for making formula, will it increase or remove lead?
Do not use water from the hot water tap to make baby formula. Boiling water will concentrate lead levels, which can increase the amount of lead in the water. Always flush your faucet and use water from the cold water tap when making formula. Bottled drinking water should be used by pregnant women, breast-feeding women, young children, and formula-fed infants at homes where lead has been detected at levels greater than 15 ppb.
Why can’t I use hot water from the tap for drinking, cooking, or making baby formula?
Hot water dissolves lead more quickly than cold water and is therefore more likely to contain greater amounts of lead. Never use water from the hot water tap for drinking, cooking, or making baby formula. Bottled drinking water should be used by pregnant women, breast-feeding women, young children, and formula-fed infants at homes where lead has been detected at levels greater than 15 ppb.
Should I test my children for exposure to lead?
According to the EPA, children at risk of exposure to lead should be tested by your doctor or local health center. Contact your children’s physician to determine if a test is necessary.
What can I do to make my water safer?
- If your water hasn’t been used for several hours, run water from your kitchen tap or whatever tap you use for drinking and cooking for 30 seconds to 2 minutes or longer until it becomes cold or reaches a steady temperature before using it for drinking or cooking. This will help flush lead-containing water from the pipes. Your water utility will inform you if longer flushing times are needed to respond to local conditions. Please note that flushing may not be effective in high-rise buildings. In order to conserve water, you can fill multiple containers after flushing for drinking, cooking, and preparing baby formula. Note: You may want to capture the initial running water for uses other than drinking or cooking, such as for watering the plants.
- Do not use hot tap water for cooking and drinking purposes and flush each cold water tap before drinking and using the water for cooking purposes. Lead dissolves more easily into hot water. Do not use water from the hot water tap to make baby formula.
- Bottled drinking water should be used by pregnant women, breast-feeding women, young children, and formula-fed infants at homes where lead has been detected at levels greater than 15 ppb.
- Do not boil water to remove lead. Boiling water will not reduce lead.
- Look for alternative sources or treatment of water. You may want to consider purchasing bottled water or a water filter. Be sure the filter is approved to reduce lead or contact NSF International at 1-800-NSF-8010 or www.nsf.org for performance standards for water filters.
- Identify if your plumbing fixtures contain lead and replace, if necessary. Brass faucets, fittings, and valves, including those advertised as "lead-free," may contribute lead to drinking water. As of June 19, 1986, new or replaced water service lines and new household plumbing materials could not contain more than 8% lead. Lead content was further reduced on January 4, 2014, with the adoption of the requirement that the amount of lead used in plumbing materials intended for contact with drinking water must be certified as "lead-free" (weighted average of wetted surface cannot be more than 0.25% lead). Consumers should be aware of this when choosing fixtures and take appropriate precautions. Visit the NSF Web site at www.nsf.org to learn more about lead-containing plumbing fixtures.
Where can I get more information on lead?
For more information, visit EPA's Web site at www.epa.gov/lead, the CDC Web site at www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead, or call the National Lead Information Center at 800-424-LEAD, or contact your health care provider or local health department.