lead in drinking water

Getting a Clue about Lead Plumbing

by Lisa Donahue

Photo credit: Eric Vance, US EPA

Photo credit: Eric Vance, US EPA

In the classic murder-mystery board game of Clue, Colonel Mustard or Miss Scarlett might use a lead pipe as a weapon.  Where did that lead pipe come from?  That old mansion probably had lead pipes serving the kitchen, and running from the water main into the basement. Lead was a common plumbing material that was used then to manufacture brass faucets, pipe fittings, solder, and other plumbing components.

Congress banned lead pipes and limited lead in brass and solder in 1986 because lead can affect almost every system in the body. While children are most susceptible, adults can also experience harmful health effects from lead.

Any home, particularly those built before 1986, might still have lead in the plumbing.  Because lead can leach out of the plumbing into our drinking water, Congress recently changed the law to further restrict lead content in plumbing.  Instead of requiring everyone to remove the old pipes and faucets from their homes and businesses, the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act that went into effect in 2014 requires that most fixtures manufactured and sold meet the new, lower-lead standard. When replacing leaky valves, renovating buildings, or building new construction, homeowners and contractors should make sure they’re using products that meet the new, lower-lead standards.

EPA’s consumer guide is a great reference that can help plumbers, contractors, homebuilders, and do-it-yourselfers figure out if the faucet they are buying meets the new standard.   The guide interprets common labeling marks you might find on packaging, in the product specifications, or from independent third-party certifiers to be certain a product meets the tighter standards.  EPA has also put together a Frequently Asked Questions guide to help everyone understand the new law, including the common question of what to do about inventory and replacement parts.

While there is no safe level of lead, the new law ensures that just about any plumbing product that is installed today meets the new standards, because minimizing the amount of lead in plumbing reduces our exposure to lead at the tap.

Most of us don’t think about our plumbing or water quality until there’s a leak or a problem. If you’d like to get “clued-in” to common issues related to water and lead, EPA’s website has more information.

 

About the author: Lisa Donahue is an Environmental Scientist with Region III’s Water Protection Division.  When it’s too dark to hike, bike, or ski, she enjoys playing board games with her family. She’s particularly good at Clue.

 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday: EPA Scientist Honored for Lifetime of Water Research

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Sarah Blau

It starts off sounding like a bad riddle: you cannot see it, smell it or taste it, and boiling it in water will not get rid of it. But then the riddle turns serious: it can cause high blood pressure, kidney problems, even cancer in adults, and can delay childhood physical or mental development. The answer to this grim riddle: lead.

I had heard about threats posed by lead from paint chips and dust in older houses, but not until recently was I aware lead is a common contaminant of drinking water. Although the main sources of exposure to lead are ingesting paint chips and inhaling dust, EPA estimates that 10 to 20 percent of human exposure to lead may come from lead in drinking water. As other sources of lead exposure are reduced, the percentage from drinking water is expected to rise.

Luckily, EPA scientists became aware of this health threat long before I did. In fact, EPA scientist Michael Schock recently received the American Water Works Association’s (AWWA) most prestigious research award, the A.P. Black Award, for his years of research contributing to the understanding, treatment, and prevention of lead in our nation’s drinking water.

Schock began his scientific studies in the field of geology with both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the subject. In 1978 he learned EPA was looking for a technician to work on lead problems in New England. Schock applied and got the job. In an AWWA interview he reflects on the team of scientists and staff involved in the drinking water research when he started out, “their enthusiasm and dedication to researching and solving health-related water quality problems was highly contagious.” Schock has now been with EPA for over 26 years.

The prevalence of lead in drinking water has to do with corrosion in the lead-containing materials that make up many water distribution systems. Researching problems with lead in drinking water allowed Schock to use his knowledge of geology in an unusual way. He told AWWA, “corrosion is really geochemistry with just different oxidants and a shorter timeframe.”

During his time with EPA, Schock researched and contributed to multiple publications on properties of lead corrosion as well as how to holistically treat and control water distribution systems suffering from the corrosion of lead, copper and other materials.

When asked about the importance of his research, Schock told AWWA, “I think the biggest reward is knowing we have provided insight that enables a health problem to be solved and future problems to be anticipated and prevented.” Now that’s a much better answer to the lead riddle.

About the author:  Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working with EPA’s Science Communication Team.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.