Lead, a metal found in natural deposits, is commonly used in household plumbing materials and water service lines.  The greatest exposure to lead is swallowing or breathing in lead paint chips and dust.

But lead in drinking water can also cause a variety of adverse health effects. In babies and children, exposure to lead in drinking water above the action level can result in delays in physical and mental development, along with slight deficits in attention span and learning abilities.  In adults, it can cause increases in blood pressure.  Adults who drink this water over many years could develop kidney problems or high blood pressure.

Lead is rarely found in source water, but enters tap water through corrosion of plumbing materials.  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 8 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 Does Lead Get Into My Water?

Typically, lead gets into your water after the water leaves your local treatment plant or your well. That is, the source of lead in your home's water is most likely from pipes or solder in your home's own plumbing. The most common cause is corrosion, a reaction between the water and the lead pipes or solder. Dissolved oxygen, low pH (acidity) and low mineral content in water are common causes of corrosion. All kinds of water, however, may have high levels of lead.  Lead enters the water (“leaches”) through contact with the plumbing:

  • Pipes
  • Solder
  • Fixtures and Faucets (brass)
  • Fittings

*Corrosion or leaching is a dissolving or wearing away of metal caused by a chemical reaction between water and your plumbing.

The amount of lead in your water also depends on the types and amounts of minerals in the water, how long the water stays in the pipes, the amount of wear in the pipes, the water’s acidity and its temperature.

What are the health effects of lead?
The health effects of lead are most severe for infants and children. For infants and children, exposure to high levels of lead in drinking water can result in delays in physical or mental development. For adults, it can result in kidney problems or high blood pressure. Although the main sources of exposure to lead are ingesting paint chips and inhaling dust, EPA estimates that 10 to 20 percent of human exposure to lead may come from lead in drinking water. Infants who consume mostly mixed formula can receive 40 to 60 percent of their exposure to lead from drinking water.


How can I reduce lead in drinking water at home?
Flush your pipes before drinking, and only use cold water for consumption. The more time water has been sitting in your home's pipes, the more lead it may contain.  Anytime the water in a particular faucet has not been used for six hours or longer, "flush" your cold-water pipes by running the water until it becomes as cold as it will get. This could take as little as five to thirty seconds if there has been recent heavy water use such as showering or toilet flushing. Otherwise, it could take two minutes or longer.  Your water utility will inform you if longer flushing times are needed to respond to local conditions.

Use only water from the cold-water tap for drinking, cooking, and especially for making baby formula. Hot water is likely to contain higher levels of lead. The two actions recommended above are very important to the health of your family. They will probably be effective in reducing lead levels because most of the lead in household water usually comes from the plumbing in your house, not from the local water supply.


How can I tell if my water contains too much lead?
You should have your water tested for lead by a certified laboratory. (Lists are available from your state or local drinking water authority.) Testing costs between $20 and $100. Since you cannot see, taste, or smell lead dissolved in water, testing is the only sure way of telling whether there are harmful quantities of lead in your drinking water. You should be particularly suspicious if your home has lead pipes (lead is a dull gray metal that is soft enough to be easily scratched with a house key), if you see signs of corrosion (frequent leaks, rust-colored water, stained dishes or laundry, or if your non-plastic plumbing is less than five years old. Your water supplier may have useful information, including whether the service connector used in your home or area is made of lead. Testing is especially important in high-rise buildings where flushing might not work.


HEALTH TIP
To help block the storage of lead in your child’s body, serve your family meals that are low in fat and high in calcium and iron, including dairy products and green vegetables.


What should I do if I suspect that my water contains high lead levels?

If you want to know if your home’s drinking water contains unsafe levels of lead, have your water tested.

Testing is the only way to confirm if lead is present or absent.

Most water systems test for lead as a regular part of water monitoring. These tests give a system-wide picture and do not reflect conditions at a specific drinking water outlet.

For more information on testing your water, call EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791


Should I test my children for exposure to lead?

Children at risk of exposure to lead should be tested.

Your doctor or local health center can perform a simple blood test to determine your child’s blood-lead level.

If your child has a blood lead level at or above 10ug/dl, you should take preventive measures.

Boiling your water will not get rid of lead.


Quick Tips to Reduce Your Family's Exposure to Lead

Use cold water for drinking or cooking. Never cook or mix infant formula using hot water from the tap.

Make it a practice to run the water at each tap before use.

Do not consume water that has sat in your home’s plumbing for more than six hours. First, make sure to run the water until you feel the temperature change before cooking, drinking, or brushing your teeth, unless otherwise instructed by your utility.

Some faucet and pitcher filters can remove lead from drinking water. If you use a filter, be sure you get one that is certified to remove lead by the NSF International.


What is Lead?

Lead is a toxic metal that is harmful if inhaled or swallowed. Lead can be found in air, soil, dust, food, and water.


How Can I Be Exposed to Lead?

The greatest exposure to lead is swallowing or breathing in lead paint chips and dust. Lead also can be found in some household plumbing materials and water service lines.


Who is at Risk?

Children ages 6 and under are at the greatest risk. Pregnant women and nursing mothers should avoid exposure to lead to protect their children. Exposure to lead can result in delays in physical and mental development.

Your child is also at risk if:

  • your home or a home that your child spends a lot of time in was built before lead paint was banned in 1978.
  • renovation work is being done in such a home.
  • the adults in the home work with lead.