Lead in Water: Health Effects & How to Treat It

Posted by John Woodard on July 03, 2019

Lead in Water

Finding lead in your home’s water supply is alarming. If lead is in the water you drink or cook with, your tap water is a danger you and your family’s health. Lead in water is difficult to detect since you can't taste, smell, or see it.  We'll teach you how to test your water for lead and how to remove it from water.

Sources for lead in tap water

Lead is a naturally occurring element found in certain soils or water sources. Lead has been used historically in construction and plumbing pipes because of its soft, malleable texture. Most lead contamination comes from corrosive pipes and fixtures that deliver drinking water, especially those built before 1986, the year using lead in construction was banned. As water travels through water service lines, it absorbs lead and contaminants from old pipes. Though lead is no longer used in toys or homes, it does have practical uses for the medical and industrial industries. It can be used to safely store radioactive or block radioactive rays in x-rays, line batteries, or contain other corrosive materials. 

Potential sources for lead contamination in your water:

  • Lead pipes: Older homes often have corrosive lead pipes. The higher the acidity of your water, the faster the rate of corrosion. As the pipes corrode, water absorbs the lead, which flows into your tap.
  • Lead paint: Older homes also contain lead-based paint that eventually chips and leaves dust in your home.
  • Soil: Some areas contain high lead levels in the soil. As water flows through the ground into homes, families are exposed to the harmful effects of lead.

Is lead in water safe?

Lead is so toxic that no amount in drinking water is safe. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers no amount of lead consumption safe. The EPA’s goal for lead in water is zero, but city water must not exceed 15 parts per billion. The Lead and Copper Rule, established by the EPA to protect public drinking water supplies, requires public water systems to monitor water for lead. If 10% of their customers exceed this limit, the public must be given information on how to protect their health and may have to replace lead service lines under their control. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires bottled water to contain less than 5 ppb of lead.

In a 2016 report from the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS) database, over 6 million people and 2,000 water systems had excessive lead levels in their drinking water over a 4-year span. In Flint, Michigan, the city failed to apply corrosion control, but in Newark, the city’s corrosion control methods failed. 12% of water samples from this year exceeded this amount. 

What can lead do to your body?

Lead ingestion poses a serious health risk to adults and children. Consuming lead causes irreversible neurological and development in young children and leads to lead poisoning. Lead poisoning a chronic illness that may cause learning, behavioral, and developmental issues, as well as severe damage to the immune system, bones, and teeth. Children may also experience stunted growth, impaired hearing, and anemia. Lead also cause premature birth and hinders a fetus’s development. Adults may experience cardiovascular, kidney, and reproductive problems.

Lead in water health effects

  • Developmental delay
  • Irritability
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Seizures
  • Loss of appetite

These are just a few of the potential symptoms of lead poisoning. These symptoms could also be indicative of many other health issues, so it is best to consult your primary care physician if you are concerned.

Can lead in water be absorbed through skin?

Fortunately, skin does not absorb lead in water, so it's safe to bathe in lead-contaminated water. However, this varies depending on the amount of lead in the water, the health of the individual, and whether or not the water is ingested or inhaled.

Risk groups for lead poisoning

Some groups are at a greater risk for lead poisoning than others. Children are at great risk for lead poisoning than adults. A child’s tendency to place objects in the mouth increases the risk of exposure. Pregnant women are also at a greater risk for premature labor or a miscarriage. Expectant mothers and women who are breastfeeding are at risk of causing adverse effects to their babies' organs and nervous systems since these infants absorb lead through their mothers.

How to test for lead in water at home

Lead is odorless and tasteless, so it can be difficult to know if it is in your water. Below is a list of ways to test your tap water for lead:

1. Have you water tested by a certified lab.

In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act, establishing standards and guidelines for maintenance of public water supplies. The EPA helps to enforce this act and offers resources for the public by working with EPA-certified labs to offer water testing. These labs deliver a comprehensive report of the makeup of your water.

2. Use a home water test kit.

A lead test kit may be more convenient and less expensive than sending your water to a lab. These tests reveal whether or not there's lead in your water, but they cannot tell you how much.

3. Contact a water expert.

Contacting water experts like us can assist in alleviating concerns about your water quality. We can help you identify your water issues and offer solutions to fix them. Contact our water experts for help with your home or business water systems.

4. Have your water tested by your water supplier.

Certain city governments offer free water testing. Contact your municipal government for testing.

What to do or not do if your water contains lead

  • Install a water filter or water filtration system.
  • Run water and flush your toilets to rinse lead from your water supply.
  • Use cold water to cook with since hot water is more corrosive.
  • Send your kids to school with fresh water if the city supply is contaminated.
  • Don’t boil water. Boiling water kills living organisms, but it does not reduce lead.
  • Do shower. Skin does not absorb lead, so it’s ok to take a shower as long as you don’t drink the water.
  • Don’t take chances. Lead is toxic no matter how small the amount. Take precautionary measures – don’t wait until you experience the side effects of lead poisoning.

How to remove lead from your water

1. Test your water.

You’ll want to know what’s in your water to find the appropriate filter. The utility company will provide a contamination report on your water supply. However, because water can absorb contaminates after it leaves the water treatment plant, you should test the water coming out of your faucet with a water test kit.

2. Locate the source of lead in your water.

After you've determined that your water contains lead, finding the source of contamination is the next step. Examine the pipes under your kitchen sink or the header pipe outside of your home. Pipes made with plastic or copper are visible and easy to identify and distinguish from lead. If the pipes are metal and black or gray, they could be lead or steel. To distinguish further, use a metal object like a quarter or key to scratch the surface of the pipe. If the scratch leaves a white line, then the pipe is lead. Having a certified plumber replace your water pipes is the best option.

3. Install a water filtration system.

After determining the levels of lead in your drinking water from a test, one of the best options would be a point-of-use water filtration system, installed directly at your sink. You can also use a whole house filtration system to filter the water throughout your entire home.

Expert Tip: While you're waiting to replace your pipes or install a filtration system and must use tap water, make sure it's cold. Do not boil the water. Many contaminants can be removed from drinking water through boiling temperatures, but it's not a solution for lead contaminated water. Boiling water concentrates the lead instead of removing it.

Reverse osmosis (RO) systems

An RO system filters water through a multistage process involving reverse osmosis. As water is pushed through a semipermeable membrane, dissolved solids, such as lead, are removed. It also filters water through various parts of the systems, including a carbon and sediment filter, to ensure the water you use in your home is safe and pleasing to the palate.

Read more: What is a reverse osmosis system and how does it work? | How to select the best reverse osmosis system

Water distillers

In nature, water is purified through evaporation into the atmosphere. A water distiller mimics that process by turning water into steam to remove harmful contaminants like lead.

Read more: What is a water distiller and how does it work? | Is Drinking Distilled Water Safe?

You can also use a specific carbon blend filter in an under-sink water filter or purchase an under-sink water filter that removes lead

Read more: 5 of the Best Under-Sink Water Filters

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