How to Remove Lead from Your Drinking Water
Updated: November 1st, 2022
Few things are more satisfying than a tall glass of water after a long workout or a hot day. You fill it up at your faucet and gulp down without considering what contaminants you could be ingesting. And why should you? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates public water systems and sets “safe” limits for specific pollutants in water. And although you’ve probably heard countless headlines about lead in drinking water, there’s no way such a poisonous metal could be in your precious water supply. Right?
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that between January 1, 2018, and December 31, 2020, over 18,000 community water systems serving more than 186 million Americans had some water samples with lead levels over one part per billion. So, if a public utility supplies your drinking water, it likely contains lead – even more so if your water comes from a private well.
Lead is toxic to humans, animals, and other life forms, and according to scientists, there’s no safe level of exposure to the metal. That means even low concentrations can cause irreparable health problems and death. Children, especially fetuses and infants, are the most vulnerable, but we all should try our best to reduce our risk of exposure to this harmful neurotoxin.
Let’s start by looking at how lead gets into water supplies, the possible health effects of lead exposure in adults and children, and how to remove it from drinking water.
How Does Lead Get into Tap Water?
Even if your water is lead-free at the source, it can be contaminated as it travels to your tap. But how is this possible?
When lead household plumbing and municipal service lines corrode
According to the CDC, “Certain pipes that carry drinking water from the water source to the home may contain lead. Household plumbing fixtures, welding solder, and pipe fittings made before 1986 may also contain lead.”
When water passes through lead plumbing materials in your home’s water delivery system, a chemical reaction occurs, dissolving or wearing away pipes, solder joints, brass alloy faucets, and other plumbing fixtures. The corrosion causes lead particles to leach from the plumbing materials and dissolve into the water as the water sits in the pipes or travels along them to your faucets. And unless you have a system that filters lead from your water supply, you risk ingesting the metal, assuming you drink tap water at home or use it to prepare food and beverages.
But even if your home’s piping system is lead-free, there’s a possibility that your water can pick up lead through municipal pipelines as it travels to your home. While many cities and states have done an excellent job of ensuring public pipe networks, which send water to large geographic areas, are now lead-free, millions of lead service lines still connect homes to water mains. When these pipes are exposed to water with high acidity or low mineral content, or the water sits too long inside them, it may corrode the pipes, leaching lead from them and contaminating the water flowing to your tap.
The amount of lead that leaches into the water depends on the following:
- the water temperature,
- the amount of wear in the pipes,
- how long the water stays in the water lines,
- the acidity or alkalinity of the water,
- the types and amounts of minerals in the water,
- the amount of lead that water comes into contact with, and
- the presence of protective scales or coatings in the pipes.
When industrial activity leaks lead into your well water
Not only can lead enter drinking water from components of the well system and the home’s plumbing, but industrial activities like mining and coal burning can leak the metal into well water.
Lead in excavated rock or underground mines can come in contact with water stored in aquifers that supply water to wells. Water discharges from mining areas can also leach lead and carry it toward water wells during flooding or heavy rainfall. If the well is constructed poorly or maintained inappropriately, it may allow the contaminant to enter the well system and contaminate the water.
How Much Lead is Safe in Drinking Water?
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) requires the EPA to establish contaminant levels in drinking water at which no adverse health effects are likely to occur, with an adequate margin of safety. These non-enforceable health goals, based solely on possible health risks, are called maximum contaminant level goals (MCLGs).
While the EPA mandates public water systems to replace 3% of their lead service lines each year if lead concentrations exceed 15 parts per billion (ppb), the agency has set a public health goal for lead in drinking water at zero – and rightfully so.
Lead is not only harmful to health at low levels but also can accumulate in the body over time, allowing low-level exposure to lead to high-level health concerns. So, reducing your exposure is crucial!
The SDWA considers a plumbing fixture “lead-free” if it has less than a 0.25 percent weighted average of lead across its surface. However, “lead-free” does not always mean zero lead. Small amounts of the metal can still leach into drinking water.
Is Lead in Drinking Water Dangerous?
The fact that there’s no safe level of exposure to lead should tell you how dangerous it is. Lead in drinking water is very toxic to humans. However, children are especially vulnerable to the unfavorable effects of lead poisoning. That’s because it takes very little lead exposure to affect a child compared with an adult. Moreover, their growing bodies absorb 4-5 times more of the metal than adults, and their brains and nervous systems are more susceptible to the metal’s damaging effects. It’s heartbreaking indeed, especially since children are exposed to high levels of lead through their water supply in approximately four million homes across the United States.
While adults can typically tolerate higher levels of lead exposure than children, they are not immune to its harmful effects. Pregnant women and their unborn babies are even more at risk, as lead exposure can cause various health problems. Furthermore, the symptoms of lead poisoning don’t usually appear until dangerous amounts have accumulated.
Lead Poisoning Symptoms in Newborns and Young Children
Babies exposed to lead before birth might:
- Be born prematurely
- Have lower birth weight
- Have slowed growth
Young children may suffer from the following:
- Lower IQ
- Impaired hearing
- Learning disabilities
- Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
- Damage to the brain and nervous system
- Delayed mental and physical development
Note: The risk of these symptoms may be higher for infants who drink formula prepared with lead-contaminated water because of the large amount of water they consume relative to their body size.
Lead Poisoning Symptoms in Adults and Pregnant Women
- Kidney damage
- Reproductive problems
- Cardiovascular problems
- Joint and muscle pain
- Abdominal pain
- Mood disorders
- Increased risk of high blood pressure
- Reduced sperm count and abnormal sperm
- Difficulties with memory or concentration
Pregnant women may experience symptoms such as:
- Premature birth
- Low birth weight
- Spontaneous abortion
- Gestational hypertension
- Impaired neurodevelopment
- Inability to produce healthy children
How Do I Know If There’s Lead in My Drinking Water?
You cannot see, taste, or smell lead in drinking water, but there are a few ways you can determine if your water supply contains the metal:
- Call your municipal water supplier. Municipal water suppliers must regularly test public water supplies and make the findings available. So, ask for a copy of their most recent Water Quality Report (also known as a Consumer Confidence Report), which lists levels of contaminants found during tests, which federal law requires to be run regularly. Many public suppliers publish yearly reports online, so you can also find them by typing your ZIP code into the EPA’s website. You’ll want to see lead levels below the EPA’s action level of 15 ppb. (If your water comes from a private well, look for information from epa.gov/privatewells.)
Learn more: How to Read Your Water Quality Report
- Test your water. Since a municipal water quality report would not reveal if the lead is entering your water through your home’s plumbing, the only way to be sure if you have it in your tap water is to have it tested. Home lead test kits are typically easy to use and involve placing a test strip in a sample of your water. Unfortunately, most will only tell you if your water tests positive or negative for lead, but not how much lead your water contains. To receive an accurate reading of exactly how much lead is in your water, the EPA recommends enlisting a state-certified laboratory to conduct a test.
Getting the Lead Out: How to Remove Lead from Your Drinking Water
If you discover that your drinking water contains lead, we strongly advise that you act immediately to remove it. The best way to remove lead from your water supply or reduce its concentration is to filter the water. Water filtration systems can provide a valuable defense against lead and give you peace of mind, but you must select the right one for your needs.
A reverse osmosis (RO) water filter uses intense pressure to force contaminated water through a semipermeable membrane. This membrane consists of tiny pores that block contaminants, such as lead, but allows clean water to flow to the other side. It works like a screen door allowing air to pass through and enter a home while blocking insects, leaves, and other objects larger than the holes in the screen door.
Learn more: Reverse Osmosis Water Filtration Explained
Carbon Filtration (when certified for lead reduction/removal)
Carbon filters treat water by using a process called adsorption. These filters contain activated carbon that has an abundance of pores along its surface. As untreated water flows through the activated carbon media, the carbon captures the contaminants in the pores of its surface area and allows clean water to emerge.
It is important to note that not all carbon filters can filter lead. They can only filter lead if certified to do so, requiring carbon treated to reduce lead or combined with another filtration media designed and certified to remove the metal. Look for the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) certification or the Water Quality Association certification to ensure your filter has been tested and certified.
Our Whole House Lead & Cyst Removal System is NSF/ANSI 53 certified for lead removal. Designed at the 0.5-micron nominal filtration level, it uses a unique combination of activated carbon filtration and special binders to remove up to 99.95% of soluble lead and particulate lead from water. Soluble lead is invisible, odorless, and tasteless. It is usually dissolved in drinking water and needs to be chemically removed, whereas particulate lead is like a tiny grain of sand and requires physical filtration. The filter also eliminates other heavy metals, PFOA/PFOS, chlorine, chloramine, and cysts.
Note: Water filtration systems are designed as point-of-use (POU) or whole-house filters. Installing a POU system at your faucet protects against lead from the municipal water supply and your home’s plumbing. However, a POE water filter only removes the metal from the municipal water supply but still filters every drop of water entering your household. Therefore, your ideal treatment option will be a question of whether your household plumbing contains lead-based materials.
Checking for lead in your pipes and plumbing fixtures
You can check your pipes for lead by performing a scratch test. This test involves using a coin or the flat edge of a screwdriver to gently scratch through any corrosion that has built up on a pipe. The pipe is most likely made of lead if the scratched area appears shiny and silver. While this test is an excellent way to get an idea if your home’s water supply is at risk of lead exposure, it is always best to acquire the help of a water expert or a licensed plumber to inspect your pipes professionally.
Learn more: epa.gov/privatewells
Can You Shower with Lead-Contaminated Water?
Yes. The human skin doesn’t absorb lead from water, so it should be safe for kids and adults to bathe or shower in lead-contaminated water. But please note that it’s possible to ingest marginal amounts of lead while showering or bathing. Also, remember that lead isn’t the only contaminant in shower water. Other toxic pollutants in water can also irritate your hair and skin. This is where the Springwell Whole House Lead & Cyst Removal System may also come in handy.
Lead is a toxic metal. It acts slowly and often hides in open view. Since the symptoms of lead poisoning generally go undetected (at least during short-term exposure), it is crucial to understand its many risks.
If you live in a home constructed before 1986 and are utilizing older pipes and fixtures, you may want to consider testing your water and filtering it to remove lead and other contaminants. This is especially important for pregnant women or if there are young children in the home. Children are far more susceptible to the harmful effects of lead than adults and are often exposed to higher amounts.
Checking your fixtures, such as bathtubs, sinks, tile floors, plumbing, and even the dishware you use to serve food, can help you prevent exposure and ensure the safety of you and your loved ones. However, filtering your water is the most effective way to remove or reduce lead in drinking water.
We want you to feel confident in the safety of your drinking water supply, so if you have any questions or concerns regarding lead in water, please don’t hesitate to contact us.