How to Test for Lead in Your Water and What to Do If There's Too Much
Both the EPA and the CDC have stated that no amount of lead in water is safe. Here's everything you need to know about lead in your drinking water.
Why Aren't there Leaded Cranberries Anymore?
Okay, nobody ever put lead in cranberries (as far as we know). But, manufacturers in America used to add lead to a lot of everyday items, such as gasoline, paint, pipes and plumbing fixtures, and other things.
Nobody thought much about lead test kits or lead pipes or how to remove lead from water in those days.
However, as early as the late 1800s, scientists started to show how dangerous lead is for the human body. Today, we know that lead is highly toxic when inhaled or swallowed, affecting nearly every organ and system in the human body, especially the brain and kidneys.
Lead poisoning is particularly harmful to children, especially infants and fetuses, interfering with their brain development and contributing to learning disabilities, behavioral issues, poor hearing, and sleep problems.
In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called lead poisoning the "number one environmental health threat in the US for children ages 6 and younger."
High levels of lead exposure can also cause miscarriages in pregnant women. In other words, lead is pretty bad news.
But Is There Lead in Your Water Supply?
This is obviously the lead-ing question we at WaterZen are concerned with. (Get it? Lead-ing?)
Generally speaking, the United States today enjoys some of the safest, purest drinking water in the history of the world. A big reason for this is the passing of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974 by the US Congress. Additional amendments in 1986 and 1996 required that all pipes and plumbing fixtures and fittings be “lead-free.”
In 2011, Congress went even further (go, Congress!) by passing the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, which lowered the maximum lead content of pipes and plumbing fixtures from 8% to 0.25%. (Turns out “lead-free” hadn't been all that lead-free before that.)
However, even all of that well-meaning legislation hasn't been able to eliminate all of the lead in our drinking water.
In fact, according to the Consumer Confidence Reports issued by water providers that we at WaterZen have read, the water inside many American homes contains at least 1-2 parts lead per billion parts water. (More on what that means later, but it isn't great.)
Frankly, water providers only test a small sample of the homes in their service areas. If samples are taken from new homes with new pipes, the results come out deceptively low for that area. On the other hand, if samples are taken from old homes with old pipes, the results could be very high. The reported number is an average across all the sites. This means houses in the same water district can have widely varying lead levels.
The bottom line is that, even in America, we have issues with lead in our water supplies, and your house could have higher lead levels than are being reported for your community.
How Much Lead Is Too Much?
The recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan jumps to mind as one of America's most egregious and frightening examples of lead contamination in drinking water, afflicting more than 100,000 people. Even though the water supply was cleaned up in 2017, residents are still dealing with lead-related issues.
Also, in 2016, a USA Today Network investigation found that 2,000 water systems, collectively supplying more than 6 million people in all 50 states, contained excessive levels of lead. Let's look at a few lowlights from that report:
(As mentioned before, lead level in water is measured in parts lead per billion parts water. This is known as parts per billion or PPB.)
- A Pennsylvania preschool: 210 PPB
- A Maine elementary school: 630 PPB
- An Ithaca, New York elementary school: 5,000 PPB (the EPA's threshold for “hazardous waste”)!
In Flint, as the crisis was unfolding, some homes tested from 4,000 to a staggering 12,000 PPB!
Granted, these examples are extreme. But they reinforce the fact that unexpectedly and dangerously high levels of lead in water could happen anywhere.
What If You Don't Live in Flint? Or Any of Those 2,000 Areas?
Your home probably has far lower lead levels than the ones mentioned above. However, before you go celebrate with a tall glass of ice-cold tap water, both the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have stated that no amount of lead in water is safe.
So, zero PPB is the ultimate goal and only truly acceptable number.
Having said that, here are some thresholds established by different governments and agencies:
- California's public-health goal (not enforceable by law) is 2 PPB.
- The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has set a limit of 5 PPB for bottled water. (Not all companies comply with this, though.)
- The European Union and United Kingdom's goal is 10 PPB.
- The EPA's “action level” is 15 PPB. While it sounds more like a Jason Statham movie, the “action level” means that the EPA will alert a community's water consumers once the lead level in tap water from more than 10% of their homes exceeds 15 PPB.
Considering all of the negative effects lead has on the body, we at WaterZen feel that 15 PPB is too high to use as an everyday lead threshold.
If your water tests at any number higher than zero PPB, you should take action of your own. Keep reading for handy tips on what you can do. (See how we keep you scrolling?)
But, What If You Have the Best Water Provider in the Country?
Sorry, you're not necessarily in the clear, even if you have an exceptional water utility that provides your community with pure, safe water containing no lead at all.
Unfortunately, if your house has old plumbing that includes leaded pipes or plumbing fixtures, bits of that lead could leach or flake into the pure water coming from the treatment plant and contaminate your water by the time it rushes out of your faucet.
Those acts and amendments passed by Congress only covered new pipes and plumbing fixtures, not existing ones.
Time to Find Out How Much Lead Is in Your Water
We at WaterZen recommend that everyone find out how much lead is in their drinking water. And there are four main ways to do this:
Read the Consumer Confidence Report
Check the CCR issued by your water provider each year and see if your water's lead level is listed. If your tap water comes from a water utility/provider rather than a private well, your provider should have the latest report on its website.
Take this information with a grain of lead, though. As we said before, your water provider may only be testing homes they're confident have the lowest lead levels. We recommend testing your water yourself (see below).
Contact your water provider.
Some providers will send someone to your home for free and test your water.
Buy a lead test kit
Lead test kits allow you to test the water in your home yourself. (Ding, ding! The best option!) The First Alert home lead-test kit, for example, not only tests your water for lead, but also bacteria, pesticides, nitrates, chlorine, hardness, and pH.
Available online and at most hardware stores, this home test costs less than $15 and gives you results on everything except for bacteria in just 10 minutes. (There are other lead-test kits on the market as well.) Remember to only use “first-draw” water, the water that first comes out of the tap after sitting in your pipes overnight.
Send your water to a water-testing company
Companies such as Tap Score will test your water in their labs. Although this option isn't as fast as the home lead-test kit, it's easier and more comprehensive, including results for copper, hexachlorobutadiene, and isopropylbenzene. You simply fill two vials with water, mail them to Tap Score, and wait for your results.
This option is great for smaller municipalities and for the 40-50 million Americans who get their water from private wells. One disadvantage is its price tag, which can exceed $100.
Bonus! There's a fifth option
But it's only for those who live in New York City (Here's your excuse to move there and chase your Broadway dream!) NYC offers a free lead-test kit that can be requested by residents. The process takes about three weeks and tests for lead only, but hey, the price is right. If there are other cities that offer this, please let us know.
So, What If Your Lead Level Is Above Zero?
If your lead level is between 1 and 15 PPB, you need to take action, but you're not in immediate danger. Here are some things WaterZen and the CDC recommend:
- DON'T start drinking bottled water. It's expensive, often contains more contaminants than tap water, and spews out an unbelievable amount of plastic waste. There is an exception to this, but you'll have to keep reading to find out what it is. How's that for a cliff-hanger?
- DO install a water filter system that specifically eliminates or reduces lead contaminants. (Be sure to read the fine print to ensure this.) It's also a good idea to make sure that the filter is “NSF-certified” or “NSF-listed.” For more info on the types of filters out there, check out our article here.
Once you can get a proper water filter installed and/or leaded pipes and plumbing fixtures replaced, make sure to test your water again and see if the lead has been eliminated.
What If Your Lead Level Is Much Higher?
If the water in your home has a lead level that's higher than 15 PPB, you may have a serious problem on your hands. Here are some things to do right away. (For more details, read the CDC's webpage on lead in water.)
- Ask your water provider or city government if your service pipe at the street (header pipe) has lead in it.
- If your header pipe DOES NOT have lead in it, and you haven't had a chance to install a filter yet, clear your water system of lead by running the kitchen tap (or whichever tap you're using) on COLD for 1-2 minutes. Then fill multiple clean containers with water from this tap to use for drinking and cooking.
- If your header pipe DOES have lead in it, and you haven't had a chance to install a filter yet, more flushing is needed. Run high-volume taps (like the shower) on COLD for 5+ minutes, and then run the kitchen tap on COLD for 1-2 minutes. Then fill multiple clean containers with water from this tap to use for drinking and cooking.
- In either situation, drink or cook with cold water from the tap because warm or hot water can contain much more lead. Important note: boiling water does nothing to reduce the amount of lead.
- Showering or bathing in water with a lead level at or above 15 PPB is totally okay. Our skin is unable to absorb lead in water. (Just don't drink it!)
- Because children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, the CDC recommends that, until a filter can be installed, they should drink and cook with bottled water. (Here's that exception we promised!)
We recommend checking with NSF International before choosing which brand of bottled water to buy. Also, keep in mind that bottled water isn't fluoridated and you might need fluoride supplements.
- Install a water filter as soon as possible. (See the preceding section for more details.)
Our Conclusion: Get Your Water Tested!
If you take anything away from this article, it's that WaterZen highly recommends you buy a lead-test kit, find out how much lead is in your home's water supply, and take appropriate steps to remove that lead.
And next Thanksgiving, stay away from those leaded cranberries!
WaterZen exists to improve your family's health by making information about the water you drink more accessible, straightforward, and easy-to-understand. We do this by providing clear, simple water-quality information for your area based on data from your local water provider, unbiased comparisons, health standards, and expert opinions.
The way we see it, when you're informed about the quality of your water and then empowered to protect your family (and your community), you've achieved "water zen".