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Health Effects of Lead in Drinking Water

EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree that there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood. Taking action to reduce these exposures can improve outcomes. Lead is harmful to health, especially for children.

How Lead Gets into Drinking Water

Lead can enter drinking water when plumbing materials that contain lead corrode, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content that corrodes pipes and fixtures. The most common sources of lead in drinking water are lead pipes, faucets, and fixtures. In homes with lead pipes that connect the home to the water main, also known as lead services lines, these pipes are typically the most significant source of lead in the water.  Lead pipes are more likely to be found in older cities and homes built before 1986.  Among homes without lead service lines, the most common problem is with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and plumbing with lead solder.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) has reduced the maximum allowable lead content — that is, content that is considered “lead-free” — to be a weighted average of 0.25 percent calculated across the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures and 0.2 percent for solder and flux.

Corrosion is a dissolving or wearing away of metal caused by a chemical reaction between water and your plumbing. A number of factors are involved in the extent to which lead enters the water, including:

  • the chemistry of the water (acidity and alkalinity) and the types and amounts of minerals in the water,
  • the amount of lead it comes into contact with,
  • the temperature of the water,
  • the amount of wear in the pipes,
  • how long the water stays in pipes, and
  • the presence of protective scales or coatings inside the plumbing materials.

To address corrosion of lead and copper into drinking water, EPA issued the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) under the authority of the SDWA. One requirement of the LCR is corrosion control treatment to prevent lead and copper from contaminating drinking water. Corrosion control treatment means utilities must make drinking water less corrosive to the materials it comes into contact with on its way to consumers’ taps. Learn more about EPA’s regulations to prevent lead in drinking water.

Health Effects of Exposures to Lead in Drinking Water*

*The health effects information on this page is not intended to catalog all possible health effects for lead. Rather, it is intended to let you know about the most significant and probable health effects associated with lead in drinking water.

Is there a safe level of lead in drinking water?

The Safe Drinking Water Act requires EPA to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no adverse health effects are likely to occur with an adequate margin of safety. These non-enforceable health goals, based solely on possible health risks, are called maximum contaminant level goals (MCLGs). EPA has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at zero because lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels. Lead is persistent, and it can bioaccumulate in the body over time.

Young children, infants, and fetuses are particularly vulnerable to lead because the physical and behavioral effects of lead occur at lower exposure levels in children than in adults. A dose of lead that would have little effect on an adult can have a significant effect on a child. In children, low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that public health actions be initiated when the level of lead in a child’s blood is 3.5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) or more.

It is important to recognize all the ways a child can be exposed to lead. Children are exposed to lead in paint, dust, soil, air, and food, as well as drinking water. If the level of lead in a child’s blood is at or above the CDC action level of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter, it may be due to lead exposures from a combination of sources. EPA estimates that drinking water can make up 20 percent or more of a person’s total exposure to lead. Infants who consume mostly mixed formula can receive 40 percent to 60 percent of their exposure to lead from drinking water.

Children

Even low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in:

  • Behavior and learning problems
  • Lower IQ and hyperactivity
  • Slowed growth
  • Hearing problems
  • Anemia

In rare cases, ingestion of lead can cause seizures, coma and even death.

Pregnant Women

Lead can accumulate in our bodies over time, where it is stored in bones along with calcium. During pregnancy, lead is released from bones as maternal calcium and is used to help form the bones of the fetus. This is particularly true if a woman does not have enough dietary calcium. Lead can also cross the placental barrier exposing the fetus to lead. This can result in serious effects to the mother and her developing fetus, including:

  • Reduced growth of the fetus
  • Premature birth
Adults

Lead is also harmful to adults. Adults exposed to lead can suffer from:

  • Cardiovascular effects, increased blood pressure and incidence of hypertension
  • Decreased kidney function
  • Reproductive problems (in both men and women)

Can I shower in lead-contaminated water?

Yes. Bathing and showering should be safe for you and your children, even if the water contains lead over EPA’s action level. Human skin does not absorb lead in water.

This information applies to most situations and to a large majority of the population, but individual circumstances may vary. Some situations, such as cases involving highly corrosive water, may require additional recommendations or more stringent actions. Your local water authority is always your first source for testing and identifying lead contamination in your tap water. Many public water authorities have websites that include data on drinking water quality, including results of lead testing. Links to such data can be found on the EPA Consumer Confidence Report website.

Important Steps You Can Take to Reduce Lead in Drinking Water

Below are recommended actions that a person may take, separately or in combination, if they are concerned about lead in their drinking water.  The list is not intended to be exhaustive or to imply that all actions equally reduce lead from drinking water.  EPA recommends you also contact your local water system and health department.

  • Have your water tested. Contact your water utility to have your water tested and to learn more about the lead levels in your drinking water.
  • Learn if you have a lead service line. Contact your water utility or a licensed plumber to determine if the pipe that connects your home to the water main (called a service line) is made from lead.
  • Run your water. Before drinking, flush your home’s pipes by running the tap, taking a shower, doing laundry, or doing a load of dishes. The amount of time to run the water will depend on whether your home has a lead service line or not, and the length of the lead service line. Residents should contact their water utility for recommendations about flushing times in their community.
  • Learn about construction in your neighborhood. Be aware of any construction or maintenance work that could disturb your lead service line. Construction may cause more lead to be released from a lead service line.
  • Use cold water. Use only cold water for drinking, cooking and making baby formula. Remember, boiling water does not remove lead from water.
  • Clean your aerator. Regularly clean your faucet’s screen (also known as an aerator). Sediment, debris, and lead particles can collect in your aerator. If lead particles are caught in the aerator, lead can get into your water.
  • Use your filter properly. If you use a filter, make sure you use a filter certified to remove lead. Read the directions to learn how to properly install and use your cartridge and when to replace it. Using the cartridge after it has expired can make it less effective at removing lead. Do not run hot water through the filter.

Drinking Water Requirements for Lead

In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. This law requires EPA to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no adverse health effects are likely to occur with an adequate margin of safety. These non-enforceable health goals, based solely on possible health risks are called maximum contaminant level goals (MCLGs). The MCLG for lead is zero. EPA has set this level based on the best available science which shows there is no safe level of exposure to lead. The fact that there is no safe level of exposure underscores the fact that any action to reduce exposures can have impacts on lives and livelihoods.

For most contaminants, EPA sets an enforceable regulation called a maximum contaminant level (MCL) based on the MCLG. MCLs are set as close to the MCLGs as possible, considering cost, benefits and the ability of public water systems to detect and remove contaminants using suitable treatment technologies.

However, because lead contamination of drinking water often results from corrosion of the plumbing materials belonging to water system customers, EPA established a treatment technique rather than an MCL for lead. A treatment technique is an enforceable procedure or level of technological performance which water systems must follow to ensure control of a contaminant.

The treatment technique regulation for lead (referred to as the Lead and Copper Rule) requires water systems to control the corrosivity of the water. The regulation also requires systems to collect tap samples from sites served by the system that are more likely to have plumbing materials containing lead. If more than 10 percent of tap water samples exceed the lead action level of 15 parts per billion, then water systems are required to take additional actions including:

  • Taking further steps optimize their corrosion control treatment (for water systems serving 50,000 people that have not fully optimized their corrosion control) .
  • Educating the public about lead in drinking water and actions consumers can take to reduce their exposure to lead.
  • Replacing the portions of lead service lines (lines that connect distribution mains to customers) under the water system’s control.

EPA issued the Lead and Copper Rule in 1991 and revised the regulation in 2000, 2007 and 2021. States may set more stringent drinking water regulations than EPA.

In 2011, changes to the Safe Drinking Water Act reduced the maximum allowable lead content — that is, content that is considered “lead-free” — to be a weighted average of 0.25 percent calculated across the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixture and 0.2 percent for solder and flux.

Source: https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/basic-information-about-lead-drinking-water#getinto

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