Is Lead in Drinking Water an Issue? What you may not know.

Ron Cobb

Many Americans became more aware of the issue of lead in water after the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. It began in April 2014 after Flint officials changed its source of water from the treated Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Flint River. The corrosive Flint River water caused lead to leach from the aging piping infrastructure and resulted in high levels of lead in the drinking water.

The source of this lead contamination is primarily attributed to the piping network used to transport the water. Prior to 1930, water distribution pipes were primarily made of lead. From 1930 through the 1980s copper became the preferred piping material but the solder used to join the pipe still contained lead. A treatment process known as corrosion control is used to minimize the amount of lead that may leach into the drinking water from either the piping or the solder. The maximum allowable lead content in drinking water is 15 parts per billion (ppb). Municipal water utilities continuously treat the water to comply with regulatory standards.

The plumbing industry has been working with legislators for many years to reduce the risk of lead in our drinking water. The lead in water reduction initiative began over 40 years ago with the original federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).  This legislation, which passed in 1974, mandated that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set standards for drinking water quality, including the regulation of lead content in drinking water. Additional updates and legislation continued the push to reduce lead levels in drinking water and now requires public water suppliers to monitor lead levels in drinking water and treat it if lead and copper are found to be at unacceptable levels.  On January 4, 2014, the Federal Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act went into effect. This dictates that plumbing components in a water distribution system cannot exceed 0.25 percent lead by weight on wetted surfaces.  Before the law legal definition of “lead free” was plumbing fixtures with a lead content less than 8 percent.

SHP’s specifications for plumbing in the buildings we design follow the regulations regarding lead in piping and fittings.  But, it is important for people to realize that this piece of the water supply is minimal compared to the distance the water travels from the source to the user.  In other words, if the water has picked up lead on the way to the building, it will contain lead even when lead-free pipes and solder are used within the building.  We suggest everyone be aware of the current state of piping in their area as well as any legislation and funding regarding their local infrastructure. Once the water leaves the public main at the street, water quality is the owner’s responsibility.  If you have a concern, have the water tested.  The EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline, 800-426-4791, will refer a caller to laboratories that have been state-certified to test water for lead or you can call your local water utility for their recommendations.  Home test kits are also available, but as of this posting, none have been state-certified.  The quickest, most effective solution is installation of a water filter capable of removing lead.

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