Information about Lead in Drinking Water

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What is lead?

Lead is a naturally occurring metal and widely distributed all over the world. It ranks about 36th in natural abundance among elements in the earth’s crust. It has also been widely used over the years in gasoline, house paint and plumbing fixtures. However, the amount of lead that is released into the environment each year has been greatly reduced through various initiatives which banned the use of lead gas and house paint and by requiring the use of “lead-free” plumbing materials.

What are common sources of lead exposure?

People are exposed to lead when it enters their body. The primary source of lead exposure for most children is lead-based paint which includes paint chips and paint dust. Other sources of lead exposure include soil, some plumbing materials, and a number of consumer products, including certain types of pottery, pewter, brass fixtures, food, toys, and cosmetics. Lead exposure can also occur in the work place (jobs that include house painting, plumbing, renovation, construction, auto repair, welding, electronics repair, jewelry or pottery repair) and exposure from certain hobbies (such as stained glass or pottery, fishing, making or shooting firearms and collecting lead or pewter figurines). People who work with lead can also “take it home” on their clothing and shoes.

Drinking water is another source of lead exposure. Lead can enter drinking water when service pipes that contain lead corrode, especially where the water has characteristics that corrodes pipes and fixtures, such as high acidity or low mineral content. Corrosion is found to occur often in brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures with lead solder, from which significant amounts of lead can leach into the water, especially hot water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that drinking water contaminated with lead can contribute to 20 percent or more of a person’s total exposure to lead. Infants who consume mostly mixed formula can receive 40 percent to 60 percent of their total exposure to lead from drinking water.

Why is lead a concern?

Infants, fetus, young children and pregnant women are the most at risk from exposure to lead. Lead can harm a child’s growth, behavior and ability to learn. Lead can be passed on from mother to baby during pregnancy. Lead is stored in the bones and can be released during pregnancy or nursing.

What is the level of lead in public drinking water supplies?

EPA and New York State (NYS) Department of Health (DOH) have implemented a regulation, called the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), that establishes an action level for lead in public drinking water at 0.015 milligram per liter (mg/l) which is the same as 15 microgram per liter (µg/l or mcg/l). The LCR requires a public water system (PWS) to collect tap samples from sites served by the system that are likely to have plumbing materials containing lead. If more than 10 percent of tap water samples at the selected sample sites exceed the lead action level of 0.015 mg/l, then a PWS is required to notify homeowners and takes steps to reduce lead levels in the public drinking water supply.

Should I be concerned about lead if I use a private water source for drinking water?

Even with a private well being used as a drinking water source, there may still be a concern about lead in your water. The plumbing in your home may contain lead pipes, lead solder, or lead materials, especially if you live in a house built before 1986. The lead in these pipes can dissolve into your drinking water (see “What are common sources of lead exposure?” section above).

Is there lead in bottled drinking water?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has established a maximum contaminant level of 0.005 mg/l for lead in bottled drinking water. Bottled water suppliers must routinely test their water supply for lead.

How does lead get into the water we drink?

With very few exceptions, naturally occurring lead in public drinking water sources in NYS are below the level of detection, or when detected, much lower than the action level of 0.015 mg/l. Lead in drinking water usually results from the use of lead pipe in water systems or lead-based solder on water pipes. Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures and solder. The Safe Drinking Water Act has reduced the maximum allowable lead content -- that is, content that is considered "lead-free" -- to be a weighted average of 0.25 percent calculated across the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures and 0.2 percent for solder and flux. Homes built after 1986 may still have lead contamination because even the plumbing is considered “lead-free”, it may still contain some lead. Water in the plumbing system can dissolve lead from pipes and solder. This is called leaching. Soft, corrosive or acidic (low pH) water is more likely to cause leaching. Water left standing in the pipes over a long period of time also increases leaching. The longer the water stands in the pipes, the greater the possibility of lead being dissolved into the water. For more information, visit CDC's "Sources of Lead: Water" Web page.

Can I reduce the lead in my water?

Yes, the amount of lead can be easily lowered in most cases. To reduce the amount of lead in water:

  1. Run your water to flush out lead. Run water for at least 30 seconds or until water is cold to the touch or reaches a steady temperature before using it for drinking or cooking if it hasn’t been used for several hours. This flushes lead-containing water from the fixture.
  2. Use only cold tap water for cooking, drinking or making a baby's formula. Do not cook with or drink water from the hot water tap; lead dissolves more easily into hot water. DO NOT USE WATER FROM THE HOT WATER TAP TO MAKE BABY FORMULA.
  3. Do not boil water to remove lead. Boiling water will not reduce lead.
  4. Replace your plumbing fixtures if they are found to contain lead. Plumbing materials, including pipes, new brass faucets, fittings, and valves, including those advertised as “lead-free,” may contribute lead to drinking water. The law allows plumbing products (such as pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings and fixtures) with a weighted average of the lead content of wetted surfaces of up to 0.25% lead to be considered “lead free.” Visit the National Sanitation Foundation Web site at: www.nsf.org/Certified/Lead_content/ to learn more about lead-containing plumbing fixtures.
  5. Use bottled water or use a water filter. If your home is served by a lead service line, and/or if lead containing plumbing materials are found to be in your home, you may want to consider purchasing bottled water or a water filter. Read the package to be sure the filter is approved to reduce lead or contact NSF International at 800-NSF-8010 or www.nsf.org/Certified/Lead_content/ for information on performance standards for water filters. Be sure to maintain and replace a filter device in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions to protect water quality. Any measure you take to reduce your exposure to lead should be continued until the lead source(s) has been minimized or eliminated.

How can I test water for lead?

Watch this NYS DOH video that shows the steps for taking a first draw sample and a flush sample. This video is for home or apartment dwellers who have a lead testing kit from a laboratory.

Certified commercial laboratories can test for lead in drinking water. The list of laboratories certified to test samples from NYS can be found at http://www.wadsworth.org/regulatory/elap/certified-labs. You can also contact your local health department. The cost ranges from $15 to $50 per sample.

For a limited time, you can get your water tested for lead at no cost through the Free Lead Testing Pilot Program (FLTPP).

Consumer Beware

Unscrupulous businesses have been caught using tests or selling filtering devices that have not been found to be effective. Use only laboratories certified by NYS DOH to test lead in drinking water.

How do I know if someone in my family has high blood lead levels?

Lead in drinking water is only one possible source of lead in the body. Since our biggest concern is for small children, NYS requires universal screening of all children for lead levels at age one and again at age two. It is important to identify an elevated level of lead in a child as early as possible to reduce or remove the source of exposure, before any long-term health problems occur. Pregnant women should also discuss with their physicians the need for blood lead testing. If you have any questions about testing for lead in drinking water or if you want advice on how to lower the lead levels in your drinking water, contact the local health department in your area. For more information about control of lead in public water supplies, call the Bureau of Water Supply Protection, 518-402-7650. For questions about lead poisoning prevention and education, call 518-402-7600.

Where can I get more information?