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Lead Piping and Lead In Water
Lead is a natural element that can be highly toxic to the human body. Most exposure to lead occurs from inhalation or direct contact with substances containing high levels of lead; however, lead can also enter the body through drinking water. Treated water contains minerals that can act as corrosive agents on the pipes that deliver water to the different rooms in a home or building; this can cause a harmful release of lead from any parts of the water delivery system that contain lead products.
 

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Lead piping was popular in plumbing systems until the early 1900s. There is little danger of encountering excessive levels of lead in the pipes of a house constructed using modern materials and methods but lead in drinking water can be a problem in houses that are very old or very new.

Sources

The most common source of lead in the water delivery system of old homes is the piping, but even in newer homes, piping is not the only area from which lead can enter a plumbing system. Common sources of lead in the water include:

  • Lead Piping

Made entirely of lead, highly corrodible and susceptible to the chemicals found in tap water

  • Copper fixtures

Contain small amounts of lead used in their casting, can be corroded by water. Both "hard" and "soft" water can contain chemicals that can be slightly corrosive after long exposure, have an excessively low or high pH, or contain corrosive minerals

  • Copper or brass pipes

Often joined with lead-based solder

  • Wells

Brass or bronze pumps that can leach lead

Well screens with a "lead packing collar"

Wells that were packed with lead shot or lead wool to keep out sand

  • Service Connections

Some public service connections installed before 1930 used lead piping

If your home was built before 1930, it is likely to contain lead piping. If it was built before 1988, it is likely to contain copper piping joined by lead-based solder.

In homes with pipes that are joined using lead solder, it is likely that water run through the pipes after a long period of non-use (such as first thing in the morning) will pose the greatest threat of lead contamination.

Health Effects

Lead in the human body can be toxic and cause serious damage to many areas of the body including:

  • The brain
  • Kidneys
  • The nervous system
  • Red blood cells

Children are more susceptible to damage caused from a buildup of lead in the body. They can suffer such serious health effects as:

  • Damage to the nervous system
  • Behavior and learning problems
  • Slowed growth
  • Hearing problems

Problems can also occur in adults:

  • Ill effects during pregnancy
  • Reproductive problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Digestive difficulties
  • Nerve disorders
  • Memory and concentration problems
  • Muscle and joint pain

Testing

Lead cannot be seen, tasted, or smelled if it is dissolved in water, but if you suspect that your water supply may be contaminated by lead, or if you are not sure about the condition of your water, it should be tested to make sure that lead levels are within a safe range. Home test kits are available but may not provide accurate results regarding lead levels in your water. For a completely accurate evaluation of your water supply, a certified laboratory should perform the testing. This usually costs between $20 and $100. Some laboratories will send a trained and certified technician to make sure that water samples are correctly collected, but most will not. In this case you will be asked to collect tap-water samples yourself. It is important that you follow the procedures specified by the laboratory so that your water quality can be accurately determined. The most common procedure for taking water samples is to obtain a "first draw" sample and a "fully flushed" sample:

First draw - A sample collected after the water has sat motionless in your system for six or more hours. No water must be allowed to run before the sample is collected or the sample will not be accurate.

Fully flushed
(purged-line) A sample collected after the water has run through the tap for at least five minutes.

The laboratory will compare these two samples. If the lead content of the first draw sample is higher than that of the fully flushed sample, then the water is leaching from the in-house plumbing system. If both water samples contain the same amount of lead, then the contaminated water most likely originates from a source outside the household plumbing system.

Control/Remediation

Temporary Measures

If the water in your plumbing system is contaminated with harmful levels of lead, there are several steps that can be taken to control or remove the hazard. The first and most important step to take is that of attempting to determine the source of the lead contamination and remove it completely. In many cases, steps can be taken to eliminate enough of the lead in water to make it potable until measures can be taken to permanently remove the source of lead.

  • Lead piping

Water from a system having lead piping should not be consumed under any circumstances, as the possibility of severe corrosion in old, all-lead pipes is too great to bring to completely safe levels. The only way to completely remove the hazard of lead contamination in the water of homes having lead piping is to remove and completely replace all of the lead pipes in the system.

  • Lead solder, copper fixtures, wells

The water in systems having these types of potential hazards can be "flushed" to safer lead content levels in many cases, until the proper measures can be taken to completely remove the source of the hazard.

Do not consume water that has been standing in the pipes for more than six hours

"Flush" water sources before use until the water is as cold as it is likely to get (this must be done for each drinking water faucet or tap before use)

If the lead contamination originates from a lead service connector, flush for at least an extra 15 seconds after the water is running cold

Never consume or cook with hot water as it is more likely to contain higher levels of lead

NOTE: These methods are only temporary measures of reducing the risk of lead poisoning. They should only be employed as long as it takes for the source of lead to be removed and replaced.

Treatment

In lieu of replacing the hazardous parts of a plumbing system, there are several methods of treating water to make it less corrosive, or to remove lead from water.

  • Water treatment

Several devices are available to treat water to make it less corrosive, including:

      • Calcite filters
      • Carbon cartridge filters
      • Ion exchange resin cartridge filters
      • Activated alumina cartridge filters
         
  • Lead removal

  • Lead removal devices are typically applied individually to faucets and are not 100% effective, but can usually remove at least 85% of lead from a water system. They may employ such methods as:

        • Reverse osmosis

        • Distillation

        • Carbon filters

    These procedures may not be appropriate for your plumbing system; you should consult a professional to make sure these measures are sufficient to reduce the lead content to acceptable levels before implementing them.

    Exposure Guidelines

    In accordance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA sets the minimum acceptable level for lead at under 15 parts per billion (1 part per billion = 1.0 microgram per liter or .001 milligram per liter). Utilities are required to maintain standards meeting this regulation. You should be concerned about water lead levels if your water supply tests at or around 15 ppb (parts per billion).

    To find a qualified lead testing company in your area, look under "Laboratories" in your local yellow pages, or contact your state or local health or environmental department.

    For more information about lead, call:

    EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline: 1-800-426-4791

    National Lead Information Center: 1-800-LEAD-FYI

    On the web:
           

    http://www.epa.gov/safewater/drinklink.html

    http://www.epa.gov/lead/nlic.htm

    www.hud.gov/offices/lead

     
             

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