lead in drinking water

Dating back to the ancient Romans, lead was the metal of choice to make water pipes because it was rigid yet malleable, making it easy to work with and bend. This remained the standard for hundreds of years, until we discovered that lead is toxic and doesn’t belong in our homes or, even worse, in our water systems. No lead level is safe for human consumption, but this irreversible neurotoxin is even more harmful to children and babies.

Unfortunately, even with all the advancements and regulations regarding our drinking water, only 89.5% of American drinking water is governed by the Safe Water Drinking Act and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And even if water is deemed lead-free at a water treatment plant, once the water leaves a municipal facility and begins making its way into your home, all bets are off.

Your drinking water can easily pick up new contaminants along the route from treatment to your taps, especially from outdated pipes. It is estimated that approximately nine million homes and over 400,000 schools in America still have lead pipes. To make matters worse, private wells and systems that serve less than 15 residences are completely unregulated. This is a considerable concern, since these wells currently provide water to more than 34 million people across the U.S.

So, how bad is the lead pipe problem, and what can happen when you ingest lead into your body? Plus, what can you do to reduce your risk of exposure? We’ll answer all these questions and more. But first, let’s start with an incident that brought national and international attention to lead and the other waterborne contaminants still affecting our drinking water, even at a municipal level. 


The Flint Water Crisis

In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan — a city where 40% of the residents were already struggling with life below the poverty line — made the executive decision to switch its water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to build its own pipeline to connect to the Karegnondi Water Authority. This was done in an effort to save money, but almost immediately, the residents began complaining about the water quality. City and state officials denied for months that there was a problem.

As an increasing number of people — mainly children — began getting sick, residents insisted the city test the water. As one resident’s child was diagnosed with lead poisoning, a city test revealed the lead in her home was 104 parts per billion (ppb). The EPA’s limit is 15 ppb. Virginia Tech researchers also performed water tests and revealed the results at 13,200 ppb. For reference, water becomes classified as “hazardous waste” at 5,000 ppb, less than half the contamination affecting Flint’s water supply.

By this time, the supply pipes had sustained significant corrosion and lead was leaching into the water system, poisoning city residents. The city decided to switch back to their original water supplier and added lime to the water, but that did not provide sufficient erosion control. The damage had been done. A massive public health crisis was happening, and the president declared a federal state of emergency. Over a dozen people died, and more than 90 got sick with Legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of pneumonia that can be deadly if not treated properly. These numbers do not include the number of individuals who will suffer from long-term cognitive issues and other health problems due to lead exposure.

Since bringing this crisis to light, the city has been actively improving and replacing lead service lines in the ground, constructing secondary water lines, renovating the water reservoirs, replacing water mains, and building a new backup water source. Over a dozen city and state officials have been indicted for their roles in the scandal, and multiple lawsuits have been brought against government officials for their blatant negligence and disregard of regulations.


Lead Pipes in America

Since the Flint water crisis, high lead levels have been found in tap water in over a dozen cities, including Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Detroit, and Washington DC. An analysis by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that between 2018 and 2020, 56% of the U.S. population drank or cooked with water from systems with detectable levels of lead. Considering that the acceptable amount of lead in drinking water is zero, any amount is a red flag.

Between 1900 and 1950, lead was thought to be safe, and a majority of large cities installed lead water pipes. Lead pipes are very durable, which was part of their original charm, and the EPA estimates that 6-10 million of these pipes are still being used as lead service lines today. But over time, as plumbing pipes and fixtures containing lead begin to corrode, the metal can dissolve or even flake off into the drinking water. If your water runs clear, you may think you are safe from this contamination. But you can’t see, smell, or taste lead, making this problem dangerously undetectable to consumers.

Unfortunately, another survey by the NRDC shows that lead service lines probably exist in every American state and that many states and utilities don’t even know where all of their lead service lines are. This means that the numbers provided by the EPA are most likely grossly underestimated.

 infographic: lead pipes in America 

Health Effects of Lead in Drinking Water

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics, and health experts agree that no amount of lead in the body is safe, especially in infants and small children. Since their bodies and brains are still rapidly developing, they absorb lead easier than older children and adults.

Ingested lead in our bodies can cause issues in our teeth, bones, blood, kidneys, liver, heart, and brains. As lead levels increase, so do these problems, and high levels of exposure can be life-threatening. Scarily enough, signs and symptoms don’t typically appear until a dangerous amount of lead has already accumulated in the body.

Lead Poisoning Symptoms in Newborns:

  • Premature birth
  • Lower birth weight
  • Slowed growth

Lead Poisoning Symptoms in Children:

  • Developmental delays
  • Learning difficulties
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Hearing loss
  • Irritability
  • Seizures
  • Pica, which manifests through eating things that aren’t food, such as paint chips

Lead Poisoning Symptoms in Adults:

  • High blood pressure
  • Headache
  • Difficulties with memory or concentration
  • Mood disorders
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Reduced sperm count or abnormal sperm
  • Stillbirth, miscarriage, or premature birth 


How to Reduce Lead Exposure Through Your Drinking Water

There are several ways to help minimize lead and reduce exposure when it comes to your tap water:

  • Flush out stagnant water by running your faucet for a few minutes prior to drinking.
  • If your faucet has a screen or aerator, take care to regularly clean or replace it. 
  • Only use cold water for drinking. Warm and hot water tends to contain higher levels of lead. Boiling tap water may kill off other contaminants but will not reduce or remove lead. This practice can actually make contamination worse by concentrating the lead content.
  • Find out if you have lead pipes by following NRCD’s guide or ask a licensed plumber to determine if your plumbing pipes or fixtures are made from lead.
  • You can have your lead pipes removed, but this can be costly. Contact your water system provider to proceed with this process.
  • Consider installing a whole home water filtration system.


The Science of Water

Lead is toxic, and a matter to be taken very seriously. But it’s unfortunately not the only contaminant that can be found lurking in your drinking water. Let the Science of Water put your mind at ease with a free water test and estimate. The results will help our experts determine which of our technologically advanced, slim-fit filtration systems will be best to protect your home’s water supply.

The Science of Water is proud to offer the Puronics line of whole home water filtration systems, which are based on NASA technology. We use the iGen, an advanced technology that is so smart it monitors your water for you to optimize water quality and operating efficiency. 

At The Science of Water, your health is important to us. We are dedicated to providing America with the clean and pure water it deserves, one home at a time. Contact us on our website or by calling 1-352-745-7070 or 1-904-580-0000, and let’s get started with your free water test today!



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