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What to Do About Lead in Water

by Peter Lombardi

Quality Specialist, Consultant

> 4 min read


The presence of lead in drinking water is hazardous. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claim there isn’t a known safe amount of lead in a child’s blood. It can cause a host of health problems in adults but particularly for children, who are still growing.

Since congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, the EPA has been responsible for maintaining safe drinking water standards in the US. The maximum contaminant level goals (MCLGs) outline safe levels of contaminants in drinking water. The MCLG for lead is zero, but it remains prevalent in certain areas around the country.

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How Water Sources Become Contaminated

Lead is an organic metal that is most commonly found in the outer layer of Earth. Although naturally occurring, lead is often leached into the atmosphere and groundwater due to the burning of fossil fuels, mining, and manufacturing. As a useful component for manufacturing, lead is used to produce items such as paint, batteries, and ammo. 

Before 1986, lead was one of the key elements in soldering and pipes used to create water distribution systems for towns and cities. While much of this piping was replaced over the years, there are still remnants of lead in many communities. In modern times, the main sources of lead in water are lead pipes, faucets, and fixtures. 

Lead generally enters your water supply when the lead-based piping and plumbing materials begin to corrode. Areas where the water is highly acidic or has low levels of minerals are more susceptible to pipe corrosion. Lead is rarely found naturally in water, meaning delivery systems are crucial in preventing the transmission of lead poisoning.

Health Effects of Lead Consumption

Once consumed, lead is stored in people’s bones, blood, and tissue. It isn’t absorbed permanently by these body parts. It is stored in these areas, causing continued exposure to someone’s insides. As people get older, their bones demineralize, causing increased exposure. 

In water, lead is tasteless and odorless, and the immediate symptoms of lead poisoning are slow-acting and can be caused by other factors. This means that it is often very difficult to detect, leading to serious illness. 

Common symptoms of lead exposure include:

  • Stomach pain
  • Constipation
  • Headaches
  • Lack of energy
  • Appetite loss
  • Body tingling
  • Loss of memory

Lead is particularly dangerous for specific segments of the population. It is usually more harmful to children and pregnant women. 

Adults

The most harmful effects of lead exposure to adults include cardiovascular problems, high blood pressure, kidney damage, and reproductive issues for both men and women. 

Although it hasn’t been medically proven, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the EPA claim that lead is likely to cause cancer among humans.

Children

Lead exposure to children can cause the same health issues as with adults. However, because children are still growing, even small amounts of lead in a child’s blood can cause developmental problems. Some of the worst effects include:

  • Learning difficulties
  • Behavioral problems
  • Low IQ 
  • Hyperactivity
  • Stunted growth
  • Problems with hearing
  • Anemia

High levels of lead ingestion can lead to death. 

Pregnant Women

Lead is exceptionally dangerous for pregnant women and unborn babies. If a woman has lead stored in her bones, it is released as maternal calcium during pregnancy, causing illness and potentially contributing to pregnancy complications. If a pregnant woman is deficient in calcium, they should take supplements to reduce the risk of lead poisoning.

Lead can pass through the placenta, harming a fetus. This can slow the growth of the fetus and lead to premature birth.

What to Do About Lead in Water

Lead poisoning can occur from inhalation, swallowing, or absorption. Fortunately, lead in water can’t be absorbed by human skin. Bathing and showering should be safe in lead water as long as it isn’t ingested. 

If you’re worried about the presence of lead in your water supply, there are a few key actions to take.

Test Your Water Supply

The first action you should take to address a lead water problem is to determine whether your water is contaminated. As lead is tasteless and odorless, testing is required to ascertain water quality. 

If your water supply is linked to a community water system, you’re entitled to receive an annual report on your water quality. This report is called a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), and community water supply customers should receive one by July 1st every year. You may contact your water provider for the latest report or if you haven’t received your yearly copy.

The EPA upholds a public notification rule whereby they must alert all customers if problems are detected with the drinking water. If lead is detected in your supply, you must be notified by law.

If your water supply comes from a private well or an alternative source, you’ll most likely have to have it tested privately. Contact your state-certified laboratory to carry out water testing. These tests are generally inexpensive and very informative. As the internal plumbing of a home is one of the primary causes of lead in water, ensure that you test the water from sources within your home, including kitchen faucets, showerheads, and pipes connected to appliances.

Use Water Filters

Lead can be removed from water using certain filters. Several different types of filters can reduce or eliminate lead from your water supply. The National Science Foundation (NSF) grades filters on their abilities to remove various particles, including lead. 

Research the NSF grade before deciding on a water filter or filtration system. Some of the best water filters are handheld water pitchers, point-of-use filters, faucet filters, kitchen water filtration systems, reverse osmosis devices, and countertop water filters. 

What to Do if You’ve Been Exposed to Lead 

If you’re worried that you or your children have ingested or been exposed to lead-filled water, you should contact a healthcare professional immediately. There may be no immediate symptoms, so don’t wait for them to develop. 

In most cases, lead poisoning can be detected with a blood test. Fortunately, lead in the blood is treatable, and you can live a normal life with lead in your body.


Test Your Water Every Year

Although it is unlikely, lead can infiltrate your water system in a short period. Ensure that you test your water supply every year for lead and other contaminants. If your area is known for poor quality water, make sure to invest in a filtration system to keep you and your family safe.

Peter Lombardi

About the Author

Peter is a Los Angeles based water quality specialist, and works as a surveyor for businesses and communities looking to be informed and active about the quality of their water. He shares his expertise with 64 oz. to ensure everything is accurate, and to prevent the spread of misinformation about water contaminants.