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How Harmful is Lead in Your Water? 

Written by:
George Simms
Plumber & Contractor

Lead is a toxic metal that occurs naturally on Earth. Exposure to lead can cause serious health problems, particularly among children. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no lead exposure level that doesn’t have harmful effects.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains a zero lead level goal for drinking water because of its toxicity levels. However, lead poisoning has resulted from ingesting water from lead pipes in many areas.

"To avoid drinking water that contains lead, there are some important things to know. "

How Lead Can Get Into Drinking Water

Over half a million US children are reported to have elevated levels of lead in their bloodstreams. The primary cause for this is lead paint and water pipes. 

The most common way for lead to get into drinking water is through plumbing materials. When the water flowing through these pipes has high acidity levels or low mineral content, it corrodes plumbing fixtures. This causes lead particles to enter the water, which people and pets consume. 

Lead pipes, faucets, and household plumbing fixtures are typically found in old cities, houses, and apartments built before 1986. Buildings from this time were often developed with lead service lines connecting the home and main water lines. 

Residences without lead service lines sometimes have brass- or chrome-plated fixtures or galvanized iron pipes soldered with lead. Many plumbing materials are not intended for drinking water but end up being used for this purpose, causing lead to appear in the water.

Health Effects of Exposure to Lead in Water

Due to the toxicity level of lead, it is recommended to avoid drinking water that contains any traces. The amount of damage it can cause varies depending on the person, the lead present in the water, and the amount consumed. Lead stays in the body and can bioaccumulate gradually.  

Bathing and showering in lead-contaminated water should be safe for adults and children. Human skin doesn’t absorb lead in water through bathing.

1. Health Effects on Young Children

For young children, babies, and fetuses, lead consumption is hazardous. The effects, both physical and behavioral, can occur after lower levels of exposure than with adults. 

"While there is no safe blood-to-lead concentration, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that children who have lead levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) in their blood should seek medical care. "

Common health effects of lead being present in the blood of children include:

  • Behavioral problems
  • Learning difficulties
  • Lower IQ
  • Hyperactivity
  • Stunted or slowed growth
  • Anemia

2. Health Effects on Pregnant Women 

After consuming lead in water, it can accumulate and remain in the body for a long time. It is often stored in people’s bones with calcium. If a pregnant woman has lead stored in her body, it releases from her bones as maternal calcium. Increased amounts may be released if there aren’t adequate stores of calcium from the woman’s diet. 

The lead release causes exposure to the fetus, resulting in severe health effects to the mother and fetus. It can cause a reduction in the growth of the fetus and may induce premature birth. 

3. Health Effects on Adults 

Although lead in water is particularly harmful to children and pregnant women, adults are also vulnerable. Consuming lead in water can have cardiovascular effects and cause increased blood pressure. It can also result in reduced kidney function and reproductive issues. 

Symptoms to Watch For 

Detecting lead exposure early in children is important to reduce the severity of the effects. As children, babies, and fetuses are still experiencing growth in their bones and organs; they absorb more lead than adults. 

Here are some symptoms to look out for: 

  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Irritability and general fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of hearing
  • Learning difficulties
  • Delayed development, either physically, mentally, or both

For adults, symptoms can be similar but also include the following:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Pain in the joints and muscles
  • Numbness of limbs
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Memory loss
  • Miscarriage or premature birth for pregnant women

How to Detect if Lead is in Your Water Supply 

Lead cannot be detected through sight, taste, or smell in drinking water, making it even more dangerous. One way to find out if there is a risk of lead exposure in your water is to determine if there are potential sources of lead in your plumbing or service line. 

Contact your water provider or municipality and ask if you have a lead service line providing water to your premises. If there is a lead service line connected to your home, you can ask about potential programs to help you get rid of it. 

While service line removal may be possible, replacing it can take some time. Working on these systems can expose workers to lead, requiring them to take extra precautions

The EPA necessitates that community water systems create annual water quality reports for all customers by July 1. The report is called a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR). Get in touch with your municipality for a copy of the latest CCR.

If you have a well or private water source and can’t find information on your water supply, you can have it tested. Each state has lists of certified laboratories that can test drinking water. You will be charged for testing, but it is generally inexpensive.

The amount of lead that enters your water supply is dependent on a variety of factors, such as:

  • The acidity and mineral content of the water
  • The amount of lead the water is exposed to
  • The temperature of the water
  • The condition of the pipes
  • If there are protective coatings or scales in the plumbing fixtures
  • Memory loss
  • Miscarriage or premature birth for pregnant women

Take Action to Prevent Harm from Lead in Water

Lead in water is silently dangerous. It’s important to take action to ensure your drinking water isn’t contaminated. While there are treatments to remove lead from the body, waiting for symptoms to appear can be very dangerous. 

Learn about the plumbing system that feeds your home, test your water supply, and use a filter if you’re concerned about the presence of lead. These steps can reduce the chances of being harmed by lead in your water.

About the Author

George Simms is a Salt Lake City based plumber and contractor, with a focus on aiding homes and businesses (particularly farm) solve problems with hard and contaminated water. Walter is here to share his wealth of job experience and a knowledge of both modern and antique plumbing.

Last Updated on December 9, 2021