Lead in Drinking Water

Table of Contents

What are the Health Effects of Drinking Water with Lead in it?
Lead exposure can have negative impacts on anyone, and has been linked to a myriad of diseases and issues. Children and pregnant women are particularly susceptible. The sections below break down the issues that lead can cause by group.
What are the Health Effects of Drinking Lead Contaminated Water in it for Adults?
The risk adults face for drinking low levels of lead in contaminated water are, increased rates of of hypertension, as well as other negative cardiovascular impacts, worsened kidney function, infertility, and long term exposure is associated with Neurodegenerative Disease, such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

Drinking lead contaminated tap water is dangerous for people of all ages. Though it is particularly dangerous for pregnant women and children, adults are still at risk of long-lasting, dangerous side effects.
What are the Health Effects of Drinking Lead Contaminated Water in it for Pregnant Women?
Impacts from pre-birth and early childhood exposure to lead include: premature and undersized births, damage to the child’s brain, kidneys, and nervous system, heightened chances of learning disabilities and/or behavior issues, and heightened risk of miscarriage. Lead accumulates in a mother’s bones  over her lifetime. When pregnant, it is released from the bones and can cause lead exposure to the fetus or the breastfeeding child. Even low-level lead exposures in developing babies have been found to affect behavior and intelligence.
What are the Health Effects of Drinking Lead Contaminated Water in it for Children?
While lead exposure is not good for anyone, children, and fetuses are at particularly high risk as they are much more affected by what would be a low dose for an adult. Even low-level lead exposures in developing babies have been found to affect behavior and intelligence. Specifically, children are at heightened risk of negative impacts to their nervous systems, learning disabilities, height, hearing, iron deficiencies, and formation and function of blood cells. Childhood exposure to lead is also associated with neurodegenerative disease later in life.

Very high levels of lead can cause seizures, coma and death. At lower levels of exposure, a child can suffer from developmental delay, lower IQ, hyperactivity, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, impaired hearing and stunted growth. For an increase of 10 µg/dL during the preschool years, an average IQ loss of 2.6 points is predicted. While this may seem like a small difference, it is associated with large changes in the percentage of children classified as intellectually gifted or intellectually challenged based on the shift in the IQ distribution Many of these effects are irreversible. Increasing the problem of lead poisoning is the fact that signs of lead poisoning are not always obvious. At low lead levels, a child may show no symptoms at all. Many children who are lead-poisoned look and act healthy. Sometimes the vague symptoms may be mistaken for other illnesses.
What Are the Health Impacts of Chronic, Long-Term Exposure to Lead in Drinking Water?
Chronic Lead Poisoning is associated with three main types of symptoms: gastrointestinal, neuromuscular, and neurological.  Central nervous system and neuromuscular symptoms usually result from intense exposure, while gastrointestinal symptoms usually result from exposure over longer periods of time.  Signs of chronic exposure include: Symptoms of exposure may include: abdominal pain, constipation, depression, easily distractible, forgetfulness, irritability, nausea and sickness. Cumulative and childhood lead exposure is also associated with increased risk of Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Dementia It may be hard to notice impacts of long term exposure to lead as they happen gradually and can be caused by released accumulation of lead from the parts of the body (such as the bones) even after exposure has happened.
What Are the Health Impacts of Short-Term Exposure to Lead in Drinking Water?
Lead poisoning is a very serious and dangerous condition resulting from exposure to high levels of lead in a short period of time. According to the Florida Department of Health, symptoms when this happens include: memory loss, headache, muscle weakness, paraesthesia (sensation of “pins” and “needles”), abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, poor appetite, weight loss, symptoms associated with encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) (rare), lead’s effects on the mouth include astringency and a metallic taste, absorption of large amounts of lead over a short time can cause shock (insufficient fluid in the circulatory system) due to loss of water from the gastrointestinal tract, hemolysis (the rupture of red blood cells) due to acute poisoning can cause anemia and hemoglobin in the urine, damage to kidneys can cause changes in urination (e.g., decreased urine output).
How do you Test for Lead Poisoning?
Health care providers use a simple blood test to detect lead poisoning.  A small blood sample is taken from a finger prick or from a vein.  Lead levels in the blood are measured in micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL).  An unsafe level is 10 µg/dL or higher, though there is no safe level of lead.
How do you Treat Lead Poisoning?
There are two main treatment methods for Lead Poisoning: 1. remove the source of lead and 2. chelation therapy for people with significantly high blood levels or who have serious symptoms of poisoning. Chelation therapy uses special drugs that bind to metals in your blood which are then removed from the body through urine. Chelation therapy is not without drawbacks, however, so it is only recommended in more extremes cases, especially for children and pregnant women. The long-term damage lead causes cannot be reversed, but source removal and chelation can remedy short term issues.
How Long Does Lead Stay in our Bodies?
While the half-life (the amount of time it takes your body to remove half of a substance) of lead varies from about a month in blood, 1-1.5 months in soft tissue, it is about 25-30 years in bone. Lead in builds up over time as a person is exposed over their lifetime. Lead can stay lock in the bones for decades; however, some lead can leave the bones and reenter the blood and organs under certain circumstances, for example, during pregnancy and periods of breast-feeding, after a bone is broken, and during advancing age lead can be released in larger amounts.
How Much Lead In Drinking Water is Dangerous?
The WHO says there is no safe level of lead. The EPA’s ideal level of lead goal for water is none. It serves no health benefit in humans and can only cause damage. The EPA’s stance is that there is no “safe” level of lead in drinking water for human health. However, EPA’s current “action level” of fifteen parts per billion in drinking water. As lead builds cumulatively in the body, if your water is tainted with lead, the more water you drink, the more lead builds up over time in your body.
How Does Lead Get in Drinking Water?
Lead is picked up on the way to your faucet. The most common culprits are lead service lines – the pipes that connect homes to the cities water main, and lead pipes in the home. Typically, lead is not present in large amounts after treatment or at the water source for most cities in the US. This is more commonly an issue for older homes more than it is for younger homes. The EPA gives the below regarding how lead gets into drinking water in the US: “Lead is unusual among drinking water contaminants in that it seldom occurs naturally in water supplies like rivers and lakes. Lead enters drinking water primarily as a result of the corrosion, or wearing away, of materials containing lead in the water distribution system and household plumbing. These materials include lead-based solder used to join copper pipe, brass and chrome-plated brass faucets, and in some cases, pipes made of lead that connect houses and buildings to water mains (service lines). In 1986, Congress banned the use of lead solder containing greater than 0.2% lead, and restricted the lead content of faucets, pipes and other plumbing materials to 8.0%.”
How Does Lead Leach into Tap Water?
Disturbances, prolonged contact, and corrosion can cause lead to leak into tap water. Tap water sitting for prolonged periods in lead pipes, lead service mains, or lead soldered pipes can slowly leach into water. Work on pipes that contain lead can minerals to loosen and lead to enter the water. Issues with lead in tap water a frequently mitigated by corrosion control methods to build up mineral deposits by local water treatment plants. When they fail, however, issues like those in Flint, Michigan, can happen.
Are Lead Pipes in your Home Impacting Your Tap Water?
Many pipes, especially from those in homes built in the US before 1986 have lead in them. While corrosion control is practiced by water utilities, they do sometimes fail, and create issues like what happened in Flint, Michigan. If your pipes get disturbed this can also cause lead to leach into your water system. Brass Faucets made from 1970 to 2014 can also cause issues as they were allowed to contain lead far in excess of what is currently permissible by the EPA.  
Are Lead Service Lines Impacting Your Tap Water?
It is estimated that there are between 6 to 10 million lead service lines in the country. Since there is no national repository of records, information regarding lead service lines that could be affecting tap water on a large scale are extremely difficult to generate. The best way to check this is to see if your local area water supplier shares any information, and contact your city if not. The Midwest and northeastern United States are particularly impacted. This National Resource Defense Council article provides a lot of insight regarding which states are most impacted by lead service lines
How to Tell if Pipes are Lead
This great article from The Allegheny Front gives a great list of four ways you can tell if you have lead piping in your home.
1. If your pipes are a dark matte gray color, that’s usually a good tip that they are lead pipes or service lines.
2. Next, scrape the service line with a screwdriver, if it is lead, the metal would be soft and turn really shiny.
3. If your supply line turns a brownish, copper color, that means it is a copper supply line.
4. Aside from lead or copper, you can also have a plastic or galvanized steel service line coming into your house. If it’s steel, a magnet would stick to it. If it’s lead or copper, a magnet would not stick to it.
Can Children be Exposed to Lead at Schools?
Yes, schools are a vector for lead exposure for children. There are federal guidelines for testing schools for lead in the US, but they are not mandatory and many states do not enforce them. A recent Harvard study determined that many schools are not testing when they should be, and many schools that DO test are finding elevated levels of lead. Specifically, it stated, “In those states with available data, four in 10 schools (44%) have identified outlets that yield water with a lead concentration at or above the state-specific action level”.
How Do You Test for Lead in Tap Water?
There are a number of ways to test for lead in your water both through private labs and public resources. Some tests are at home and some results need to be sent in. Some places, like Chicago, IL have free resources for lead testing. Asking your local water company may be an affordable way to either get a test or be connected with a testing company. 
Are At-Home or Laboratory Tests Better at Finding Lead in Tap Water
Lab tests done by trained chemists are generally more sensitive and reliable vs. tests done at home. Home tests are useful to check for major issues with lead, but can miss smaller amounts or have user error. The downside to lab tests is that they are more expensive. There are a number of high quality labs out there that test for issues beyond lead in your tap water. Tap Score  (despite the name similarity is not related to Tapsafe) is a full service testing company that can also help you test for other contaminants and really get a full spectrum understanding of problems that may exist in your water. If you do go with an at-home test, read the fine print when you buy, as there are some tests that seem like they are at home, but are really just a vial to be sent in to a lab that costs more money.
Do I do about Lead in Drinking Water?
There are three approaches to take when dealing with lead in tap water: fixing the issue, risk mitigation, or avoidance. Fixing the issue means replacing everything containing lead on your tap water’s route to your cup. This is often expensive and difficult. Mitigation includes filtration, as well as other, similar methods. Avoidance can also be very expensive as water bottles quickly add up.
How Do I Filter Water to Remove Lead?
Filtering tap water is one of the most direct ways to make sure the tap water you are drinking is safe from contaminants. There are 3 main Categories of Filters that can remove lead: reverse osmosis, distillation, and activated carbon.
About Reverse Osmosis Filters for Removing Lead from Tap Water
Reverse Osmosis is a widely used to reduce the level and remove lead from water. Most under the sink water filters that you have likely seen are reverse osmosis filters. There often are not really “complete” reverse osmosis, as those are too expensive for most individual use. Instead, partial reverse osmosis filters are what companies sell to the public. This is often the best option for getting a permanent filter in your home.
About Activated Carbon Filters for Removing Lead from Tap Water
Activated carbon is another common method to remove lead from your water, and typically involves filtered pitchers and water bottles. Activated Carbon absorbs heavy metals like lead, magnesium and many other harmful contaminants. Buyer beware, however,  as not every carbon activated filter is rated to remove lead. In fact, the standard Brita activated carbon filter does not list lead as a contaminant it removes. The filter cartridges get filled up quickly and need frequent replacement to be effective. The lead removing capabilities of the filters also deteriorates after processing a certain amount of water depending on the quality and power capability of the filters.
About Distillation Filters for Removing Lead from Tap Water
Distillation is the most energy intensive, and thus expensive method of lead removal. However, distillation is very good at purifying water and removing lead. It also continues to work well over longer durations than the other methods and doesn’t require frequent filtration cartridge replacement. A couple downsides are that distillation requires energy to work and takes a bit longer to work.
How to Mitigate Risk of Lead in your Tap Water
Lead can accumulate in your water as it sits in the pipes over long periods. So if you do have lead pipes, it is recommended you run them for 30 seconds to 2 minutes to flush the water that has been sitting. You should make sure to use cold water- both for flushing the pipe and for any drinking or cooking water. This is because hot water dissolves lead more easily. The EPA recommends the 3 steps below – 
1. Flush Lead from the Water System
Let the water run from the tap before using it for drinking or cooking any time the water in a faucet has gone unused for more than six hours. The longer water resides in plumbing the more lead it may contain. Flushing the tap means running the cold water faucet for about 15-30 seconds. Although toilet flushing or showering flushes water through a portion of the plumbing system, you still need to flush the water in each faucet before using it for drinking or cooking. Flushing tap water is a simple and inexpensive measure you can take to protect your health. It usually uses less than one to two gallons of water. 
2. Use only Cold Water for Cooking or Drinking if you Suspect there is Lead in your Pipes
Do not cook with, or drink water from the hot water tap. Hot water can dissolve more lead more quickly than cold water. If you need hot water, draw water from the cold tap and then heat it. 
3. If Mitigation of Lead in Water does not work – Drink Bottled Water 
The steps described above will reduce the lead concentrations in your drinking water. However, if you are still concerned, you may wish to use bottled water for drinking and cooking.
Heating or boiling your water will not remove lead. Because some of the water evaporates during the boiling process, the lead concentration of the water can actually increase slightly as the water is boiled.