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August 2022

Lead Pipes in Homes: A Silent Danger That Should Be Addressed

You may have heard and read about the harmful effects of lead exposure resulting from lead pipes in homes, especially after the widely publicized water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Unfortunately, it's a problem many people have to deal with in their own homes throughout North America and globally.  

Lead is a toxic metal, but it was widely used in the past because of its affordability and durability. Lead pipes in homes are a significant source of exposure to lead poisoning.  

Lead paints, lead service pipes, household plumbing, lead solder, and plumbing fixtures are all sources of lead exposure often found in older homes, but also in other areas including medicines and cosmetics. Many people are exposed to these sources of lead poisoning in their daily lives.  

Over time, the lead in pipes and plumbing fixtures corrodes and mixes in the water supply. Lead can have harmful effects on your health; it’s especially dangerous for young children and pregnant women.  

If you’re concerned about lead pipes in your home, you can take a few steps to alleviate the problem. Getting your tap water tested is the first step, and depending on the results, you can put some mitigation strategies into practice.  

Replacing the lead pipes in your home can be a significant undertaking, but it’s one that you should consider if you have young children or are planning a family. Read on to learn more about how lead pipes in homes can affect health and what to do about them. 

How Does Lead Exposure Happen? 

Lead has been used for household plumbing since the days of the Roman Empire. Sadly, the ill effects of lead poisoning have been documented since antiquity. Despite that, lead continued to be used for plumbing materials in the 20th century for many reasons: It is affordable, pliable, easily shaped, and very durable. In fact, lead pipes can last for up to a hundred years.  

The prevalent use of lead pipes in the last 150 years means that we’re still dealing with the legacy of problems from the 20th century today.  

Exposure to lead in homes is most often due to the lead found in paints and plumbing. Lead in drinking water from pipes accounts for the largest contributor of exposure to lead. 

Lead pipes are most often found in older homes built before 1986, but even newer homes and fixtures can contain lead. Lead pipes in homes were a standard feature, and until recently, the use of lead was allowed in plumbing fixtures. When the lead in these pipes and fixtures erodes, it contaminates the water supply.  

Corrosion depends on several other factors like: 

  • The age of the water pipes
  • The water supply has high acidity or low mineral content 
  • Length of time water stays in the pipes 
  • Condition of the pipes  
  • Water temperature, as hot water dissolves lead more easily 

Some water systems use corrosion control measures, such as adding minerals that form a coating on lead water pipes and brass faucets and valves. This can reduce lead by preventing it from leaching into the water. 

Why Are Lead Pipes in Homes Harmful? 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there’s no safe lead level in drinking water. Lead poses serious health risks. It can affect all organs and especially the nervous system. The effects of lead in drinking water can be especially harmful to children under the age of 6 years and for fetuses, as the brain and nervous system are still developing.  

Very low levels of lead may not harm adults but can pose serious health risks for children and infants. Lead exposure can lead to anemia in children. It can cause damage to the kidneys and nervous system, decrease bone and muscle growth, and cause behavioral problems, lower IQ, and learning disabilities.  

Higher levels of lead can cause various health problems in adults, affecting the brain, cardiovascular system, kidneys, and more: 

  • Loss of concentration, memory loss, headaches, depression 
  • Joint and muscle pain, fatigue 
  • High blood pressure  
  • Nausea and poor appetite  
  • Kidney damage  
  • Damage to the nervous and reproductive systems  

Given the risks of lead poisoning, the U.S. Congress passed the Safe Water Drinking Act (SWDA) in 1974. The U.S. government amended the water act in 1986 and 1996. It aims to protect public health and water quality by defining safety levels for over 90 contaminants, including lead.  

Further, in 1991, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the Lead and Copper Rule, which aims to protect public health by minimizing the amounts of copper and lead in the public water supply. However, millions of lead pipes are still found in all 50 states and continue to expose Americans to the risks of lead poisoning. 

How Do I Tell if My Home Has Lead Pipes? 

If you live in an older home built before 1986, it’s more likely to have lead water service pipes or lead soldering on copper pipes. These could be the water service lines connecting your home to the water main or the indoor plumbing within your home. 

To learn if your home has lead service lines, you can check with your local water utility company. They’ll be able to tell you if the service lines that connect your home to the local water supply use lead pipes.  

A licensed plumber should also be able to provide you with that information. If you're the handy DIY-type, you can check the service lines and exposed pipes in the basement and under the kitchen sink to see if they’re made of lead.  

Keep in mind that even if the service lines and water pipes inside your home don't contain lead, it may still be present in brass plumbing fixtures like faucets. Lead is still used in newer plumbing systems to solder copper pipes and brass faucets. So there may be elevated amounts of lead in the water supply in new houses as well.  

Your water supply may be contaminated with lead even if your home doesn't have lead pipes in the service lines or internal plumbing. 

Should I Get My Water Supply Tested? 

The best way to learn if your drinking water supply has a risk of lead is to have it tested. You’ll find a list of state-certified laboratories that can test your drinking water on the EPA website. You can also get this list by calling the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791. Lead testing costs between $15 and $100 and will also alert you to the presence of any other contaminants in your water sample. 

The local water utility company or county health department may also be able to tell you how to get your tap water tested. The testing will show if the lead level in your drinking water is above the EPA guidelines for the maximum contaminant level for lead, which is set at 0.015 milligrams per liter. If the lead levels are higher, you should consider replacing the lead pipes.

Line replacement is quite a significant undertaking and should be done by a professional contractor or plumber. You could typically expect to pay around $5,000 to replace lead pipes within the home.

If the lead level is below 0.015 milligrams per liter, you can opt for mitigation measures instead.

What Should I Do if There Is Lead in My Drinking Water Supply? 

If testing shows that there are higher levels of lead in your water supply than the EPA deems safe, there are a few mitigation measures you can take. These should help reduce the risk of lead exposure and poisoning in the home: 

  • Use cold water for cooking and drinking 
  • Never use hot water directly from the tap as it dissolves lead more quickly, and should never be used for mixing baby food and infant formula 
  • Let the taps run for a while before using the water to clear corroded lead particles  
  • Use a water filter that’s specifically designed to remove lead and other contaminants 
  • Home water treatment systems like reverse osmosis and distillers are the most effective at removing lead from water 
  • Switch to NSF-certified lead-free plumbing fixtures and pipes

If the lead levels in the tap water are very high, you may need to go beyond mitigation and replace the lead pipes in your home. This would include replacing the lead pipes in the service lines and indoors. 

Millions of people in the U.S. are at risk of lead exposure due to lead paints, pipes, and plumbing fixtures within and outside their homes. Exposure to lead carries severe health risks, especially for children and pregnant women. To protect your family from the harmful effects of lead, you can get your water supply tested for contamination.  

If the test results show dangerous levels of lead in your water supply, there are several mitigation measures you can take. If testing shows high levels of lead in the water supply, you may need to replace indoor lead pipes in your home.  

Can’t replace your pipes, but still want to gain some control over the quality of your water supply? Reach out to HomeWater today to learn about water filtration systems that can support your efforts to provide clean water for your family.  

Keeping Your Family Safe From Lead Exposure

Millions of people in the U.S. are at risk of lead exposure due to lead paints, pipes, and plumbing fixtures within and outside their homes. Exposure to lead carries severe health risks, especially for children and pregnant women. To protect your family from the harmful effects of lead, you can get your water supply tested for contamination.  

If the test results show dangerous levels of lead in your water supply, there are several mitigation measures you can take. If testing shows high levels of lead in the water supply, you may need to replace indoor lead pipes in your home.  

Can’t replace your pipes, but still want to gain some control over the quality of your water supply? Reach out to HomeWater today to learn about water filtration systems that can support your efforts to provide clean water for your family.

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