The Truth About Lead Water Pipes

Posted by
John Woodard on May 17, 2024

While the toxicity of lead is well known, its effects on modern water supplies are less common knowledge. Lead pipes in older homes contaminate individual water supplies, but some services pipes still in use contain lead that leaches into water used by many homes and businesses. While lead pipes continue to be fazed out, they are still much more common than you might think. In this article, you can learn about common misconceptions about lead pipes, their effects on public health, and what is being done about lead contamination in public water supplies.

Are lead water pipes dangerous?

Yes, lead pipes and solder contaminate drinking water supplies, causing a variety of symptoms in people of all ages. Lead is an extremely toxic metal that leaches from old pipes into water as it sits idle and flows through. Lead exposure is especially dangerous to children and pregnant women, but it results in damaging side effects for other adults as well. While flushing water that comes from lead pipes can yield lower lead levels, it does not get rid of the hazards of lead completely.

When were lead pipes banned?

The use of lead pipes and solder in new homes was banned in 1986. Most cities stopped using lead service lines and pipes in the 1950s and 1960s. However, drinking water in old homes is not necessarily free from lead just because the home does not have lead pipes. Old service lines are often made of lead, leaching the toxic metal into drinking water as it sits still or flows through the line. To determine if your home’s pipes are made from lead, it is best to check the pipe for yourself or have your water tested. You can have your water tested with a home water test kit or by sending samples to a lab.

Learn more: Lab water tests vs at-home water test kits

How to identify lead pipes

If you are unsure whether your pipes are made from lead, you can do so with a simple test. Once you have located the pipe you wish to test, use a coin, screwdriver, or a similar tool to gently scratch through the corrosion and grime on the outside of the pipe. A lead pipe will be silver and shiny. You can also take a magnet and apply it to the outside of the pipe. If the pipe is made of lead, the magnet will not stick to it.

You can also check for lead exposure in general by testing your home’s water. Ultimately, you do not want the lead in your pipes to make its way into your water, so checking the levels of lead in your drinking water tells you everything you need to know. You can test specifically for lead with a home lead test kit, or you can get a more comprehensive water analysis by sending your water to a lab for testing.

Learn more: How to test your water at home with a water test kit

What is a lead service line?

Service lines, many of which still contain lead today, run from the water main to a building’s water meter. According to the EPA, about 9.2 million lead service lines are still in use in the United States. To combat this level of exposure to lead in drinking water, the Biden-Harris administration announced on May 2, 2024, that $3 billion in funds are being allocated to assist in the replacement of lead service lines. With the purpose of dropping the number of lead service lines to zero, this funding is intended to help replace lead service lines as quickly as possible.

Where are lead pipes used?

Lead pipes have not been freshly installed in plumbing systems since at least 1986, but they are still used all over the United States in old plumbing systems and service lines. No matter your location in the United States, there is no guarantee that you are safe from lead exposure in drinking water. In fact, many public schools’ water supplies were found to contain lead in 2023. In this analysis, about 6% of schools contained levels of lead above the EPA’s maximum safety threshold.

Symptoms of lead exposure

The symptoms of lead poisoning differ in children, pregnant women, and other adults. In most cases associated with drinking water, these symptoms are the result of long-term exposure at low contamination levels.

Symptoms of lead exposure in children

  • Brain and nervous system damage
  • Learning disabilities
  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
  • Delay in mental and physical development
  • Impaired hearing
  • Anemia

Symptoms of lead exposure in adults

  • Increased risk of high blood pressure
  • Kidney damage
  • Reproductive problems

Symptoms of lead exposure in pregnant women

  • Increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature birth
  • Increased risk of preeclampsia
  • Low baby birth weight
  • Damage to brains, kidneys, and nervous system of the baby

What should I do if I have lead pipes?

The ideal action to take if you have lead pipes is to completely replace your home’s plumbing system with plumbing made from lead-free materials. For many reasons, this is unfeasible for most homeowners. The next best action is to install a point-of-use water treatment system in your home. While point-of-entry (whole-house) water treatment systems are excellent for supplying an entire home with treated water, they should not be used to remove lead from water. This is because the lead pipes are located between the whole-house system and the faucet or fixture. As a result, lead will leach into the water after it has been treated. Some of the most common systems used to treat lead include reverse osmosis, water distillers, and activated carbon filters that are certified for lead removal.

Learn more: How to remove lead from water

Should I flush my drinking water if I have lead pipes?

To minimize the concentration of lead in your drinking or cooking water while you work on a more permanent solution, you should flush your water if it has sat idle for at least a few hours. A rule of thumb is to flush your water for at least two minutes before using it for cooking or drinking. You do not need to flush the water you use for bathing or washing your hands because lead in water does not absorb into skin.

Lead Pipe FAQs

How can I reduce my lead exposure?

If you are waiting for a permanent solution to be installed, flush your water for at least two minutes when it has sat for at least a few hours. In addition, never cook or drink with hot water if lead levels are present. Heating the water increases the concentration of lead levels, making it even more harmful to your health. If you do not already do so, clean your faucet aerators regularly. You can continue to bathe like normal. Do not use these precautions as a permanent solution. Install a more permanent solution, such as a point-of-use water filter, as soon as possible.

Who owns my home’s water service line?

In most locations, the service line from the water main to the meter is owned by your local water company. Maintenance of these lines are the responsibility of the utility company. Plumbing from the meter to the home is to be maintained by the homeowner. However, this does not apply to all communities. Consult your local water company if you are unsure of the ownership of your service line.

Do low lead levels in my local water quality report mean I’m safe?

No, because water treated by a municipal plant flows through pipes after treatment, water that is low in lead initially may not be by the time it reaches your faucet.

Learn more: How to read your water quality report

Do water softeners remove lead?

No, water softeners are used to eliminate calcium and magnesium from water to prevent the damage caused by limescale. They have no effect on the levels of lead in water. Instead, use a treatment method designed for lead removal, such as reverse osmosis, distillation, or carbon filtration with lead reduction capabilities.

Learn more: What is a water softener?

Does boiling water remove lead?

No, boiling water kills many microorganisms in water, but it does not remove metals or chemicals. Because water is lost in the form of steam when boiled, boiling water increases the concentration of these contaminants. Lead also dissolves faster in hot water than in cold water, so heating the water actually makes lead in water more dangerous.


If you have any additional questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.


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