Lead in Tap Water: What Parents Should Know

Lead-contaminated water is not unique to Flint, Mich., or Newark, N.J., where excessively high levels of lead contaminate drinking water. Millions of Americans may unknowingly be drinking water contaminated with lead, either because of old lead pipes or from faucets and other plumbing fixtures with high levels of lead. Lead is especially dangerous for children, and its devastating harm can last a lifetime.  

Lead and Children’s Health

Scientists, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agree that any amount of lead in the blood during childhood is harmful. Children are particularly vulnerable during the first six years of life, because their brains are in critical stages of development.

Even tiny amounts of lead in kids’ bodies are harmful. Lead exposure can alter a child’s behavior, ability to concentrate, memory and learning. Moreover, the harmful effects of exposure are irreversible and can continue well into adulthood. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that drinking water given to children contain no more than 1 part per billion, or ppb, of lead.

Children are commonly exposed to lead in dust or soil contaminated with lead paint, but drinking water can also be a significant source of exposure, especially for babies fed with formula mixed with tap water, since they drink a lot of water for their size.

Throughout most of the 20th century, American cities and homeowners installed lead pipes and solder in their drinking water delivery system. That toxic legacy continues today, with an estimated 15 to 22 million Americans drinking water from systems with lead-based water lines.

Many assume that their tap water is monitored and treated, and therefore safe, but federal drinking water regulations allow up to 10 percent of homes sampled by a community water system to exceed the federal lead action level of 15 ppb, and most houses are never tested.

Faucets and other plumbing fixtures can also be a source of lead. Most faucets installed before 1997 were made of brass that contained up to 8 percent lead. Newer faucets have much lower levels of lead, yet even those promoted as lead-free may contain up to 0.25 percent of this metal, as Environmental Defense Fund researchers explained in a recent analysis.

Can a water filter lower my family’s lead exposure?

Yes. You can find effective and affordable water filters designed to remove lead. Even simple, carbon-based filters, like pitcher filters, can do the job.

To choose a filter:

After choosing the appropriate filter, make sure it’s installed properly. For example, faucet-mounted filters require several steps for installation, including removing the faucet aerator. Your faucet may also require an adaptor. If this type of filter is not properly installed, it will not be effective.

It’s easy to forget to replace filters regularly, but it’s the best way to ensure lead removal, because a filter’s activated carbon will work only for a limited amount of time. After that, lead and other contaminants pass through. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendation about replacing filter cartridges.

In extreme cases, such as water with lead above 150 ppb, a carbon filter may not be enough. Typically, carbon filters are not tested to verify their effectiveness at those high levels. A reverse osmosis system, which is more complicated and expensive, may be preferable for tap water with very high lead levels. But in general, using a filter is better than not using one at all.

Lead can accumulate in water that sits in the pipes all night. To flush it out, run the cold-water faucet in the morning for a minute or two. Remember to use water cold from the tap for drinking and cooking, because hot water running through pipes can dissolve lead more readily. Also, filters don’t work as well on hot water.

Take extra care to filter lead out of your tap water if you have children under age six at home or if you or someone else in your household is pregnant, breastfeeding or planning to get pregnant. Mix infant formula with filtered water.

Children become less vulnerable to lead around age seven, when their bodies are better equipped to block lead from entering their brains. But lead is harmful to people of all ages, so everyone should avoid exposure.

Should I test my water?

Ask your water provider if your tap water enters your home through a lead service line. Although most utilities stopped installing lead lines decades ago, more than six million American homes still get water through lead pipes.

Although public drinking water utilities are required to report test results, tests performed in your city might not reflect the lead risks of an individual home.

You should definitely test your drinking water if:

  • Your water company says your house is served by lead-based water lines.
  • Your water company has detected lead in your neighborhood.
  • You get water from a well, and your public health department detects lead in well water in your area.

Test your water through a state-certified laboratory. Check with your state or local health department to see if they offer free water test kits.

How can we solve the lead-in-water crisis?

Replacing lead pipes is the only permanent way to remove lead from drinking water. Children’s health advocates are pushing for the federal government to replace toxic lead pipes and require health departments to provide families with more information about lead in their communities.

Some states also require schools and child care centers to test water for cooking and water from drinking fountains. Replacing fountains and other older fixtures can reduce lead levels in drinking water if the outdated fixtures are the source of lead.

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