While lead isn't the only potentially harmful drinking water contaminant, it is probably the most notorious one. Read on to learn how drinking water becomes contaminated with lead, why high levels are harmful to human health, and what you can do if your drinking water has high levels of lead.
Lead is a naturally-occurring metal that, under normal circumstances, is in very low concentrations in drinking water. Unfortunately, lead concentrations can increase to harmful levels when pipes that contain lead corrode. The corrosion process causes lead to leach out of the pipes and into the drinking water.
While all pipes corrode as they age, other characteristics and conditions can accelerate the corrosion process or effect the amount of lead that leaches into the pipes. For example, pipes corrode faster when the water is acidic or has a low mineral content.
On the other hand, scale or buildup on the interior surface of pipes slows the leaching process. In addition, lead concentrations are higher in stagnant water lines (vs. pipes that are occasionally used during the day) and when hot water runs through pipes (vs. cold water).
Lead-containing pipes are not the only culprit in this scenario. Up until the late 1980's, the solder that joined the various segments of a water delivery system (pipe sections, faucets, and fixtures) often contained lead. Like lead-containing pipes, lead can also leach out of corroded solder and into the drinking water supply.
It's important to point out that most water mains are made of iron or steel which do NOT contain lead. By contrast, the service line that runs from the water main to your house (or business - or school) can be made of lead, especially if it was installed before the 1940's. This means that your drinking water may have high lead levels even if the annual drinking water report from your supplier indicates otherwise.
Note: in the Flint case, the corrosion originated at the water treatment plant. Nine state and local officials currently face criminal charges for manipulating lead test results, misleading the public, failing to take corrective action, etc These actions made the environmental health and safety issues more severe.
People who ingest high concentrations of lead are at risk for a number of adverse health effects. Adults are likely to experience weakness, weight loss, insomnia, and irritability. They also have an increased risk of paralysis in the wrists or ankles, hypertension, and kidney disease.
Unfortunately, children, infants, and unborn babies are much more susceptible to the harmful effects of lead. Lead poisoning in this population leads to learning and behavioral problems. In addition, children and babies with high blood lead levels grow and develop more slowly than their peers and can have damaged hearing and speech. These problems can persist into adulthood if lead poisoning is left untreated.
If your water service line is made of lead or if the pipes or solder in your house, your company, or your child's school pre-date the mid-to-late 1980's we recommend that you test the drinking water. Check to see if the lead concentration exceeds the EPA's Lead Action Level of 0.015 milligrams per liter of water. If they do, take steps to reduce the concentrations to acceptable levels.
While the best way to "get the lead out" is to replace lead-containing pipes and solder, this approach can be cost-prohibitive. There are other ways to reduce lead concentrations, however. At a minimum, flush pipes that have been unused for 6 hours (run cold water through the pipes for about 1 minute). Use cold water only for drinking and cooking purposes. Install a water filter or treatment system that is certified to reduce lead concentrations (see the link below).
Cashins can evaluate the drinking water at your business or your school (we unfortunately do not do residential work). Click on the link to submit your inquiry today. We look forward to assisting you!