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Lead Pipe Dangers & How to Remove Lead Plumbing

People who feel safe drinking water straight from the tap may not think about the dangers that could be lurking. It wasn’t really until the 2014 Flint Water Crisis that the dangers of lead pipes connected to drinking water were brought back into the public eye.

Flint Michigan water crisis
The Flint, Michigan water crisis has become a national issue

In April 2014, the city of Flint made a decision to save money by switching the drinking water supply to the Flint River. Officials did not treat the water properly, and the highly corrosive water leached lead from the pipe infrastructure, contaminating thousands of residents’ homes.

Cleaning drinking water in a glass

Prior to Flint, the District of Columbia (DC) also saw a water crisis as early as 2001. To date, there are still small measurable amounts of lead in their drinking water.

No Amount of Lead is Safe

This type of health hazard could have been avoided. To safeguard and protect families, homeowners and renters have ways to be aware and best practices to prevent this type of hazard in their homes.

Washington DC Water Crisis
Even places like Washington DC are not immune with water concerns

It’s important to note that there is no amount of lead that is safe to consume. Lead poisoning, whether through water or paint, can cause serious health concerns, especially in infants and children.

Table of Contents

This guide will provide information on:

  • The history of lead pipes
  • If lead pipes are dangerous
  • Lead solder in plumbing
  • How to tell if you have lead pipes
  • How to remove lead pipes from your home
  • Ways that lead poisoning in drinking water can be prevented

The History of Lead Pipes

Lead has been used in plumbing since it was invented. As early as the late 1800s, people knew that lead pipes could cause poisoning in humans and animals (mammals) who drank water from the tap.

Lead pipes are dangerous

In the 1920s, the use of lead in plumbing was banned or severely restricted. Due to lobbying from the Lead Industries Association (LIA), it wasn’t until the 1970s that lead pipes in plumbing was banned completely.

If you have a home that was built prior to 1970, you might have lead piping in your home.

Are Lead Pipes Dangerous?

Lead pipes themselves are not necessarily dangerous to humans. What creates the danger from lead pipes is the type of water that runs through them

PH testing kit was used to test the Santevia water filter
PH testing kit was used to test the Santevia water filter

Acid and/or minerals in the water will corrode the pipes as it runs through, mixing with the water that ends up coming from the tap. Other ways lead can get into drinking water:

  • Water temperature (hotter temperatures will corrode lead faster)
  • Amount of wear in the pipes
  • How long water sits in the pipes
  • The amount of lead coming into contact with the water
  • Presence of coating/scaling inside pipes

This can happen in the lead service lines that run to your home or in the lead pipes that run from the public lines into the home.

Are lead pipes dangerous?

In 1991, the EPA instituted the Lead and Copper Rule, which creates minimum guidelines that public water systems must obey. This Rule has not been updated since 2007, though revisions are in the works and are scheduled for 2020.

Lead Solder in Plumbing

Lead-based solder was almost exclusively used to create plumbing systems until the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 was put into effect. Soldering occurs when a mix of high-temperature metals are melted at a joint to bind two separate metal plumbing pieces together to create one system.

The Act has created a requirement for new soldering metals, mainly tin-antimony and tin-silver. These solders have a higher initial cost but:

  • Less is needed
  • The bond is stronger
  • The solder can tolerate higher temperatures
  • Completely lead-free

Lead in Brass Fittings

Brass fittings can contain as much as 8% lead. Older homes that use brass fittings or fixtures may be at risk of lead exposure as these fittings degrade.

If you think your home may have aging brass filters you should test you water to verify the lead levels.

How to Tell if You Have Lead Pipes

If your faucets and exposed pipes are brass, you may think you are in the clear and don’t have to worry about lead pipes. But, it never hurts to check to make sure. Here is how to tell if you have lead pipes in your home.

How to check if you have lead pipes

Lead services lines run from the public water system to your property. To check, go to the lowest level of your home and find the main water supply line connected inside your home. Check the color of the pipe:

  • Dark matte gray color – this could be lead or copper. Take a key or tip of a screwdriver and scratch the pipe close to where it enters the house. If it’s orange, it’s copper. However, if it’s silver or gray, it might be lead. 
    • If its silver or gray, hold a magnet to it to see if it sticks. Does it stick? If so your pipes are probably galvanized steel. However, if not, then they are lead pipes

What about PVC & Plastic Pipes?

Plastic or PVC pipes will be white and easily able to determine. Do the same test for the pipes inside your home to see if you might have an internal lead pipe system.

Lead in water does not have a taste, smell, or ability to be seen. To make a final determination, the water can be sent to a lab to be tested.

If lead is found, it’s best to remove the lead piping completely.

How to Remove Lead Pipes from Your Home

If it’s found that you have lead pipes in an old home, action will need to be taken. The best solution is also the most expensive. Removing all the lead piping for lead-free piping, like PVC, is what ultimately needs to happen.

The county or city will replace lead pipes for free, however, the pipes on the homeowner’s property is their cost to bear. Estimates will vary from state to state, but it can cost upwards of $15,000 to replace the entire homes plumbing system.

Clean water from pipes

It’s best to call at least two to three different plumbing companies to come to the home to provide an estimate. The amount of boring needed to remove the old pipes and square footage of new pipes needed will be the bulk of the cost.

Clean water from a Faucet

Avoid Partial Changes

Partial changes should be avoided, both on the property and in the public system. Lead particles can still contaminate the water, causing health concerns for the family in the home. This is why DC is still showing levels of lead in their water so many years after the initial crisis.

Brita water pitcher
Some water filters can help to reduce / remove lead levels

Coordinating with the water utility to do a complete lead service line replacement is ideal if the entire system needs to be upgraded. There are several techniques that can be used based on the way the lines are currently placed.

There are things that can be done until the complete lead service line replacement can be accomplished.

Ways that Lead Poisoning in Drinking Water Can be Reduced or Prevented

Preventing lead in drinking water is done by having a completely lead-free plumbing system. There are ways that lead can be reduced or close to eliminated in the meantime:

Brita vs. PUR taste test
Our water taste test in our PUR vs. Brita comparison test.

EPA Drinking Water Toolkit

The EPA has also created a Drinking Water Toolkit that can be used in schools, daycares, and public water utilities:

New Promising Technology for Sealing Lead Pipes

New research has shown promising results in creating a mineral barrier in lead pipes to reduce leaching into drinking water. Currently, scaling to seal lead pipes can take months or even years. By threading a wire into the pipe and creating an electric current, the same process can take just hours.

PUR vs. Brita
Water purified via carbon filter

This is currently done by a process of introducing phosphates into the pipes to create a negatively charged environment. The phosphates bind with positively charged lead ions in the water and create lead phosphate, sealing the lead pipes and preventing flaking.

The technology has not made it into the ground yet, but scientists are working with local water utilities in California to do a real-world application test. If it passes the test, this could be a solution available to states that still have lead pipe infrastructure.

Summary

Some areas, like Flint, Michigan, has seen detrimental effects of lead contamination in drinking water. The Flint Water Crisis happened in 2014 and residents still do not have safe drinking water coming out of the tap.

Homeowners with houses built prior to 1970 should test for lead:

  • Check the pipes to determine if they might be lead
  • Contact the local water utility to find out if the service line has been updated
  • Review the annual water report to see if there are any lead levels present
  • Send water to a laboratory for testing

Lead can have irreversible effects on infants, children, and adults. Lead poisoning can happen if the home through paint or drinking water. 

If lead is found, the best solution is to have the plumbing system fully replaced. Working with the public utility is optimal to have everything done at the same time. There are steps to take to reduce lead contamination if immediate removal is not feasible.

Be sure to check out our other resource guides:

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