Editor's Note: The information in this article applies to most situations and to a large majority of the population. Individual circumstances may vary. Your local water authority is always your first source for testing and identifying lead contamination in your tap water.
People are exposed to lead from a
variety of sources, including drinking water. Below is a list of questions that parents frequently ask about the connection between lead, tap water, and household plumbing. Please read this information closely, and remember to talk to your child's pediatrician if you have any more questions or concerns about your child's exposure or heath.
Why is lead a problem?
Lead is a common metal that can be found around us in lead-based paint, air, soil, household dust, food, certain types of pottery, porcelain, pewter, and in tap water. High levels of lead in tap water can cause health effects if the lead in the water enters the blood and causes high blood lead level. It can cause damage to the brain and kidneys, and can interfere with the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to all parts of the body.
Blood Lead Levels in Children: What Parents Need to Know.
Does lead affect everyone equally?
No, the greatest risk from lead is to infants, young children, and pregnant women. In children, lead also can lead to impaired mental and physical development, and hearing problems.
Infants who drink formula prepared with lead-contaminated water may be at a higher risk because of the large amount of water they drink relative to their body size.
Because of lead's effects on the developing fetus, some states have developed lead screening guidelines for pregnant women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published
guidelines on screening pregnant and breastfeeding women for lead. If the mother's blood lead level is 40 micrograms/dL or more, the CDC recommends breastfeeding mothers pump and discard their breast milk until after their blood lead level decreases below that benchmark.
How could lead get into my home's tap water?
Measures and laws taken during the last 20 years have greatly decreased exposures to lead in tap water. Even so, lead still can be found in some metal water taps, interior water pipes, or pipes connecting a house to the main water pipe in the street. Lead found in tap water usually comes from the decay of older fixtures or from the solder that connects pipes. When water sits in leaded pipes for several hours, lead can trickle into the water supply.
How do I know if my tap water is contaminated with lead?
The only way to know whether your tap water contains lead is to have it tested.
You cannot see, taste, or smell lead in water. Therefore, you must ask your water provider whether your water has lead in it. For homes served by public water systems, information on lead in tap water may be available from your local water authority. If your water provider does not post this information, you should call and find out.
You should be particularly suspicious if:
Your home has lead pipes (lead is a dull gray metal that is soft enough to be easily scratched with a house key)
You see signs of decay (frequent leaks, rust colored water, stained dishes or laundry, or if your nonplastic plumbing is less than five years old)
What if I have well water?
Well water should be tested for lead when the well is new and tested again when a pregnant woman, infant, or a child less than 18 years of age moves into the home.
Where We Stand: Testing of Well Water or the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
policy statement on drinking water from private wells.
Will my pediatrician screen my child for lead exposure?
Yes. The AAP recommends all children be screened at one and two years of age for lead exposure. This is done through a blood test; the amount of lead measured in the blood can be used as a measure of the total amount in the body.
Where We Stand: Lead Screening.
If I am concerned, can I ask my pediatrician to screen my child for lead?
Yes. While pediatricians will screen for elevated blood lead levels at one and two years of age, there are circumstances that may require a lead level screening at other times. This is especially true if a new exposure to lead occurs and your child becomes at risk for
lead poisoning. Some pediatricians can screen your child for lead in their office by a finger stick. However, these tests can be falsely elevated and require a blood draw for confirmation.
How can I reduce lead in the water my family drinks?
Try to get into the habit of following these simple safety steps:
- If the water from the cold water faucet has not been used for more than 6 hours, such as overnight or after work or school, let it run 15 to 30 seconds before using it for drinking, cooking, or preparing beverages. You may want to fill a pitcher with water and keep it in the refrigerator for drinking during the same day.
- Never drink, cook, or prepare beverages using water from the hot water faucet. Lead is likely to be highest in hot water. Additionally, do not use water from the hot water tap to make baby formula.
- Avoid boiling water a long time when preparing beverages, especially infant formula. Excessive boiling water may increase the amount of lead in tap water due to evaporation.
- Avoid using lead-based cookware. Lead can get into food during cooking. Note: Lead based cookware is most commonly made outside of the United States.
- Consider using a filter. Check whether it reduces lead – not all filters do. Be sure to maintain and replace a filter device in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions to protect water quality. Contact
NSF International for information on performance standards for water filters.
If my water has high lead levels, is it safe to take a bath or shower?
Yes. Bathing and showering should be safe for you and your children, even if the water contains lead over the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) action level of 15 ppb.
Human skin does not absorb lead in water.
If my water has high lead levels, should I buy bottled water?
For homes with children or pregnant women and with water lead levels over the EPA's action level of 15 ppb, the CDC recommends using bottled water or water from a filtration system that has been certified by an independent testing organization to reduce or eliminate lead for cooking, drinking, and baby formula preparation. Because most bottled water does not contain
fluoride, a fluoride supplement may be necessary. Discuss this with your child's pediatrician.
Talk with your pediatrician
If you're concerned about lead in your tap water, talk with your pediatrician. Your regional Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU) have staff who can also talk with parents about concerns over environmental toxins.
More information from HealthyChildren.org: