Lead’s Impact On Water Quality

Lead can be a major concern for communities if it enters the primary water source, but how does it play a role in the health of those who are exposed to it? Furthermore, how can it impact humans and the environment over an extended period of time?

A Brief History of Lead

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially began establishing acceptable blood lead levels in the 1960s. This came after experts began to assume that lead contamination in water could potentially be the cause of several health conditions. In 1991, the blood lead level of 10 μg/dL was established as a standard, although experts now believe that this amount may still contribute to low IQ in children.

Over the past two decades, legislators have worked to reduce the amount of lead in water supplies across the country. However, many large cities, including Boston, Mass.; Durham, N.C.; and Washington, D.C.; have seen on-going issues stemming from lead pipes.

Lead Pipes and Water

Even before lead pipes were in widespread use, experts believed that there could be potential contamination risks. Articles dating back to 1859 show that engineers and physicians alike were concerned about toxicity.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that cities began to avoid using lead pipes, despite their engineering advantages. Citizens started to weigh the risks that could impact their health and drinking water.

However, many people and organizations, such as the Lead Industries Association, continued to push lead-based products in the early 20th century. It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that federal guidelines were established to limit the use of lead pipes in water systems.

How Lead is handled Today

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that every community water system must conduct an annual water quality report for their customers by July 1. However, some homes may be at a heightened risk, depending on the presence of lead pipes.

In these specific situations, the lead pipes need to be removed to eliminate further contamination. Adults may experience cardiovascular effects, decreased kidney function and reproductive issues if they are continuously exposed to lead-tainted water. Children may develop behavioral or learning problems, as well as exhibit signs of slow growth.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control of California has created a series of standards to regulate lead in piping throughout the state. State law prohibits the use of any “pipe, pipe or plumbing fitting or fixture, solder, or flux that is not ‘lead free,’ as defined in statute, in the installation or repair of any public water system or any plumbing in a facility providing water for human consumption.”

Beginning in 2010, California also created legislation that prohibits individuals (with the exemption of manufacturers) from selling lead plumbing supplies that could be used in a human habitat.

As of 2010, the maximum lead content allowed in pipes is 0.2 percent in solder and flux, 8 percent in lead pipes and fittings, and 4 percent by dry weight in plumbing and fixtures.

For more information on regulations geared toward preventing lead contamination, visit www.epa.gov. Data pertaining to the health effects of contaminated water can be found on the CDC website, www.cdc.gov.