Clean drinking water is something homeowners in the United States may take for granted, but it's important to remember that it's still possible for contaminants to affect this critical resource. Home builders once commonly used lead materials for household plumbing supplies, and older properties may still have lead pipes. In some cases, lead can contaminate drinking water, and can cause health problems for you and your family. Learn more about the health risks of lead contamination, and what you need to do to make sure your water supply remains pure.
Health concerns from lead contamination
You can find trace amounts of lead in the air, soil, household dust and food. According to Health Canada, human activity releases more lead in the environment than natural processes like soil erosion or volcanic activity. Lead is a serious contaminant because it is toxic and persistent. The human body stores lead in bone and tissue for many years.
Exposure to lead can cause short and long-term health problems. Young children and pregnant women are at a particularly high risk because their bodies are prone to absorb more of the material. Low level exposure can harm the intellectual and physical development of unborn children, leading to premature births, learning difficulties and growth problems.
Doctors have linked extended lead exposure to several conditions. Lead primarily targets the nervous system, leading to problems with your memory, mood and behavior, as well as weakness in the arms and limbs. Other health problems from exposure to lead include:
- Kidney disease
- High blood pressure
- Fertility problems
- Digestive problems
The International Agency for Research on Cancer now also classifies lead as 'probably carcinogenic to humans'. A doctor can test your blood level for lead content, to help you understand if you already have a problem.
Guidelines for lead in drinking water
The Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality limit the lead content of drinking water to ten parts per billion, when measured at the tap. This limit sets the amount of lead contamination that somebody could cope with over a 70-year lifetime. The lead in natural sources of drinking water in Canada is generally below this level.
The National Plumbing Code allowed lead in pipes until 1975, and plumbers could use lead in solder until 1986. All provinces and territories follow this code in their own drinking water regulations. That aside, the authorities introduced these regulations over time, so you may still find lead in your plumbing if your home was built after 1975.
Lead contamination risks
Lead leaches into your water supply as the material corrodes in pipes and fittings. The corrosion process may worsen if the water is naturally very acidic. Utility companies will normally control this in the supply before it reaches your home. That aside, you may experience more severe corrosion if your drinking water sits in the pipes for a long time overnight or during the day.
Checking water for lead contamination
According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, you can't see, taste or smell lead in your drinking water. As such, you may need to ask your water provider to give you information about the lead content in your supply, but you can also arrange to test your home drinking water to find out if the lead content is too high.
Precautions you can take
If lead contamination in your water concerns you, you can take precautions to prevent exposure. Run water from your faucet for about one minute in the morning, to flush through water that has sat in the pipes overnight, particularly if you are making baby formula. It's also useful to have a shower and flush the toilet before you run the tap, as this will also help quickly get rid of stagnant water. Don't use hot water from the tap, as the heat can concentrate lead levels. Boil cold water in a pan before you use it for drinking or cooking.
Homeowners may also want to consider installing a household water filter or treatment device. You should install these carbon-based filters at the tap you normally use for drinking water. Make sure the filter meets the NSF International standard for lead removal. You may want to ask your plumber to install the device.
You can also take action to permanently deal with potential lead sources in your plumbing. Canadian regulations state that any pipes from the curb to the house are the homeowner's responsibility, so you would need to pay to replace any lead content in this part of the supply. Your local municipality may have a scheme where you can pay a reduced rate for the work while the authorities replace the main service line, so it's worth checking with the relevant department.
You can also talk to a plumber about replacing pipes, fittings and faucets inside the house that contain lead. Your plumber can talk to you about other, safer materials. You should only use materials that carry certification that confirms they are suitable for use in contact with your drinking water.
Exposure to lead can cause a range of health problems, and long-term contamination can lead to serious issues. Homeowners can take precautions to avoid drinking contaminated water, but you should talk to your plumber about permanent solutions.
To learn more, be sure to contact Plugged Piper Plumbing Services.