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Matthew Steger WIN Elizabethtown

Lead In Drinking Water

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) considers lead to be the most serious environmental health hazard to children in the United States.  Lead can be a serious issue with regards to chipping paint as well as our water supplies.

Lead exposure symptoms in infants and children include delays in physical or mental development; children could show slight deficits in attention span and learning abilities.  It can also lead to premature birth, seizures, behavioral disorders, etc.  Long-term exposure to high lead concentrations in water has also been linked to health issues in adults, including cancer, stroke, and high blood pressure.

The EPA has set the maximum allowed level of lead in water at 0.015 mg/L.  Water with lead levels higher than this should not be consumed.  Water with high lead levels should also not be boiled as this will increase the lead concentration and the potential health risks.

When I perform water sampling for home buyers and home owners, and the test results come back high for lead, the next logical question is ‘how did lead get into my water supply?’.  Lead contamination may come from corroded plumbing, lead-based pipe solder (often in homes prior to the 1980s), and possibly ground contamination.  More than 90% of lead problems in drinking water can be traced to corrosive water and lead impurities in the plumbing system.

Interestingly, I sometimes find high lead concentrations in the water supply of relatively new homes.  These would have been constructed within the past 15 years when lead-based solder shouldn’t be an issue, especially if there is no copper plumbing in the home.  Inferior plumbing fixtures, such as some imported brass sink faucets, may contain high levels of lead which then leach into the water passing through the fixture.  Sometimes the lead source is from a plumbing fitting or other component underground where the well pump is located.  Tracing the location of the lead entry point can be extremely difficult in many cases and may only be possible by trial and error by swapping out components in the supply line between the pump and each fixture in the bathrooms and kitchen and retesting the water after each change.  In lieu of this, having a reverse osmosis (RO) system installed inside the home can help remove lead.

An RO system has a plastic membrane with very small holes in it.  Water is pushed through the membrane and only pure water molecules can make it through the holes; other contaminants such as lead and nitrates are filtered out.  ‘Whole House’ reverse osmosis systems can be installed where the water supply enters the home (thereby filtering the home’s entire water supply) or smaller RO units can be installed at a dedicated fixture (only water from this specific fixture will be safe to drink, however). 

While most EPA drinking water standards don’t require it, a proper lead-in-water test would entail running no water in the home for at least 6 hours before the water sample is drawn ( EPA 40 CFR 141.86(b)(2)).  Water needs to be sitting still in the home’s pipes undisturbed for the possibility of lead leaching to occur.  Well water analysis for FHA and VA loans requires a lead-in-water sampling whereas a basic (total coliform and nitrate) water test does not include lead. USDA loans generally follow the FHA guidelines. The person drawing water samples should use the test procedures provided by the lab who will be performing the analysis. Most labs no longer require the first-draw procedure so you can likely simply open the tab and collect your samples as dictated by your lab.

© 2018 Matthew Steger


Matthew Steger, owner/inspector of WIN Home Inspection, is a Certified Level 1 Infrared Thermographer and an ASHI Certified Inspector (ACI). He can be reached at: 717-361-9467 or msteger@wini.com.

WIN Home Inspection Elizabethtown provides a wide array of home inspection services in the Lancaster, PA area. This article was authored by Matthew Steger, ACI - owner of WIN Home Inspection Elizabethtown in Lancaster, PA. No article, or portion thereof, may be reproduced or copied without prior written consent of Matthew Steger.