Lead was commonly used to make pipes in plumbing for many centuries. It is cheap, rust resistant, and easy to weld. Eventually, health concerns encouraged a switch to alternate plumbing materials. Copper and specialized plastics (like PVC and PEX) are now choice products for water pipes in homes.
However, many older homes still have the original lead pipes installed. In the United States and Canada, homes built before the 1950s should be suspected of having lead pipes, unless they have been replaced already. Lead soldering, applied to join together copper pipes, continued to be used well into the 1980s.
Lead Is a Serious Health Concern
We absorb lead through the air, our food, and the water we drink. The effects of lead on our body are very serious. The consequences of lead poisoning range from kidney damage to reproductive problems including declined fertility. Lead poisoning is especially worrisome in children, as it affects the development of their nervous system and causes permanent changes in behavior and in the ability to learn.
In the last few decades, we generally have been well educated about the problem of lead in old paint and about what we needed to do to prevent children from being exposed. The issue of lead in the water, however, recently only became a public topic of conversation in the wake of the Flint lead crisis, wherein, in an egregious case of environmental injustice, an entire community was exposed to lead-tainted municipal water for far too long.
It Is Also About the Water
Old lead pipes are not automatically a health threat. A layer of oxidized metal forms on the pipe surface over time, preventing water from directly contacting the raw lead. By controlling the pH of the water at the water treatment plant, municipalities can prevent corrosion of this oxidized layer, and even add certain chemicals to facilitate the formation of a protective coating (a form of scale). When the water chemistry is not properly adjusted, as the case was in Flint, lead is leached out of the pipes and can reach consumers’ homes at dangerous levels.
Do you get your water from a well instead of a municipal water treatment plant? If you have lead in your house pipes, there is no guarantee that the water chemistry is not at risk of leaching lead and bringing it to your faucet.
What Can You Do?
- If you have concerns about your pipes, run water from your tap to flush out your pipe before you drink it, especially in the morning. Water that has been sitting around for several hours in your house pipes is more likely to pick up lead.
- Water filters can remove most lead from your drinking water. However, the filter has to be specifically designed for lead removal – check whether it is certified for that purpose by an independent organization (for example, by the NSF).
- Hot water is also more likely to dissolve lead and carry it to your faucet. Do not use hot water directly from the faucet to cook or make hot drinks.
- Have your water tested for lead. While your municipality may have changed all of its delivery conduits to non-lead materials, the pipes inside your older home (or connecting to the municipal system under your front lawn) may not have been replaced. To confirm your water is safe to drink, contact a reputable, certified water testing lab and have them do an analysis. It is more costly, but it's better to choose an independent company that will not try to sell you a treatment system.
- Your child’s blood level can also easily be tested for lead by a pediatrician. Detecting an elevated lead blood level early is important and would give you time to determine where it’s coming from.
- Children spend a lot of time in school – how’s the water there? Request water quality tests from your school district. If they do not have them done periodically, require they do so.