When you turn on the tap for a glass of water, the last thing you want to think about is getting a drink of lead. After all, lead is a neurotoxin — one used for thousands of years in paints, gasoline, plumbing and more. Although the adverse health effects associated with this metallic element became widely known in the 1960s, there’s probably some of it sitting in your driveway this very minute. That’s right: Lead is still used in vehicle batteries, where it’s safely away from your food and water supplies.
Of course, lead in your car is one thing; lead in your drinking water is quite another. The good news is that you don’t have to just cross your fingers and hope there are no unwelcome guests in your cup — there are tests and solutions to help.
Here’s everything you need to know about lead water contamination and testing.
While lead paint may no longer be an everyday concern, lead water contamination still impacts many households. Here’s what to know:
When lead builds up in the human body, the result is lead poisoning. Symptoms can vary depending on your age but can include developmenental delays, weight loss, abdominal pain, seizures, mood disorders and more. In some cases, lead poisoning can be fatal.
According to the World Health Organization, there’s no known safe level of lead exposure for anyone — however, children are especially vulnerable. That’s because their bodies absorb about four times as much lead as an adult’s, intensifying negative health effects. These effects can include learning disabilities, behavioral issues and even increased rates of juvenile delinquency.
In both the United States and Canada, natural water sources and treated municipal water supplies are generally free of lead. In most cases, it’s actually the plumbing and water delivery systems in your home — including valves, faucets, pipes and more — that could be leaching lead into your drinking water. This is especially true for private wells, where submersible pumps and aging structures may corrode and result in lead contamination.*
Not all tap water contains lead. In fact, there are several variables that determine how much lead could be in a certain water supply, including:
Perhaps the most famous case of lead water contamination is the city of Flint, Michigan, where measurement in April 2015 revealed lead levels of 217 – 13,200 parts per billion (ppb) — far over the level established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule, which requires action be taken at levels over 15 ppb. Since then, the state has been awarded $100 million in grant funds to help rectify the issue.
So, now that you know all about lead and its infamous reputation, how can you tell if this metal is hiding in your tap water? Let’s find out:
Unlike other water quality issues — like sulfur, which announces its presence with a rotten egg smell — lead can’t be seen or smelled.
Unfortunately, you’re no better off trying to taste for lead than you would be looking or sniffing for it. This metal is tasteless, which means you may not even know it’s in your water supply.
Lead is mostly a threat to living things, which means your home — including water-using appliances, fixtures and shower walls — won’t be damaged by contamination like they would be from hard water. Human skin doesn’t absorb water-based lead, so you’re even safe to bathe in lead water if necessary.
Because lead is invisible and odorless, you won’t be able to identify it on your own. Instead, a water test can help identify its presence.
Lead water tests help identify whether lead is present in your water supply — and, if so, at what levels. Lead testing tends to be more in-depth, so water samples are generally sent to certified laboratories versus using at-home test kits.
Testing for lead contamination on your own can be a headache — and the chances are high that you may not end up with a clear answer once all is said and done. For the best (and easiest) results, it’s ideal to let experts do the testing when it comes to lead water.
Health Canada and the Saskatchewan Environment have set a maximum acceptable concentration of lead in water: 0.010 milligrams per liter, or 10 ppb. In the U.S., the “maximum contaminant level goal” for lead in drinking water is zero, which is an objective rather than a legal guideline.
If your lead water test does identify the presence of this sneaky contaminant, what can you do? Here are a few important things to keep in mind:
Boiling water doesn’t remove lead. In fact, warm or hot water can actually have higher lead concentrations.
Just like lead testing, lead removal usually requires a professional solution. However, in the meantime, note that it’s better to use cold water for drinking and food preparation. It’s also helpful to “flush” your water by running the tap or doing dishes and laundry before you take a drink.
Although these solutions don’t remove lead from water, they do reduce the amount of lead you’ll come into contact with when using your water supply — temporary fixes that will need to be replaced with a more permanent solution.
The best way to reduce lead in your water is to install a high-quality water filtration system. It’s important to make sure your filter is certified to reduce lead — and don’t forget to ask your local water experts for help installing and maintaining a filter system.
Although water filter pitchers do exist, they aren’t always effective or reliable for lead reduction. In fact, they’re often the least comprehensive when it comes to contaminant reduction. Instead, your best option is a system designed specifically to treat your drinking water at the point of use system – these are typically installed under your sink and are the best choice for drinking water.
Despite its unpleasant reputation and its ability to hide in plain sight, lead doesn’t have to stop you from trusting your water supply. Instead, make water testing a regular habit to stay informed about the quality and contents of your home’s most precious resource — and to get recommendations on which solutions to use if a problem does arise.
*Contaminants may not be present in your water.