Lead is Affecting Drinking Water

Not Just an Ancient Concern

In ancient times, lead was used in everything from fishing nets to cosmetics.1 Lead plumbing was used in Rome and Western Europe under Roman rule and beyond.2 Wherever it was used in history, there is evidence of lead poisoning. Some historians even postulate that lead poisoning played a role in the Fall of Rome.3

Wherever it was used in history, there is evidence of lead poisoning

In March of 2016, spurred by the high amounts of lead found in drinking water in Flint, Michigan, the USA Today Network Investigation found that there were “almost 2,000 additional water systems spanning all 50 states where testing [had] shown excessive levels of lead contamination over the past four years.” The USA TODAY article quoted Joel Beauvais, deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Water, as saying “There’s no question we have challenges with lead in drinking water across the country. Millions of lead service lines in thousands of systems.”

While Flint, Michigan’s abysmal lead levels have been in the spotlight, USA TODAY reported that the cause of Flint’s contamination is due to “old lead service lines that deliver water to homes, plus interior plumbing containing lead – is a common problem for tens of millions of homes mostly built before 1986.”    

The issues in Flint led to many cities more rigorously testing their water. In November of 2016 The City of Chicago shut down 445 public drinking fountains, which were found to have lead levels exceeding the EPA’s “action level” standard.

Lead In Your System

In severe cases, lead poisoning can lead to major health problems including death. Even exposure to trace amounts over time can cause serious symptoms.

Pregnant women and young children are particularly vulnerable. According to the Mayo Clinic, lead poisoning in children can cause developmental delay and learning difficulties, hearing loss, digestive issues and abdominal pain. For adults, symptoms can include high blood pressure, memory loss, fertility issues and even mood disorders. Significant exposure to lead can cause miscarriage in pregnant women.

Lead can cause serious medical issues in children and adults

Let’s take a step back and talk about lead for just a minute: Lead (Pb) is a naturally occurring element. It is a soft, malleable, and heavy metal. It is abundant, and has many uses.  Although it may be “naturally occurring”, that doesn’t mean it naturally ended up in your drinking water without help.

Lead Service Lines

In the 19th century, lead was used in plumbing and service lines in the US. The Water Quality Association reports that, most often, sources of lead contamination are “lead service lines, lead containing solder, and brass fittings.” The WQA’s technical fact sheet also cites studies suggesting that lead contamination usually occurs after water leaves the treatment plant.

Legislation in 1986 and in 2011 has banned the use of lead pipes in homes and in plumbing systems respectively. However, the heavy use of lead before those dates continues to be a problem nationwide. While the EPA is working to address the issue of an aging water infrastructure, their efforts will take time and require substantial resources. The most recent Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey identified “a total of $384.2 billion in capital improvement needs over the next 20 years (2011 through 2031), in addition to the $271 billion in clean water infrastructure investments that will be necessary over the same period of time.”

Legislation has banned the use of lead pipes since 1986.

In other words, many Americans are still at risk of lead poisoning. Whether your home was built before 1986, or your water runs through lead-containing pipes on its way from the treatment plant to your home, it could become contaminated.

Keep The Lead Out

City or water suppliers will send out notices regarding drinking water – take it seriously. Save the notice and don’t be afraid to call with follow-up questions. Sometimes water suppliers have reason to play down the seriousness of a contamination issue. Don’t let complicated wording stop you from knowing the truth. If questions about the notice still linger, take the time to follow up.

Don’t wait to find out – look for water supplier’s Consumer Confidence Reports online, or call and request a copy. Check water quality by accessing the Environmental Working Group’s database here. Water quality tests also exist – it’s as simple as sending out a sample to find out.

One of the best ways to remove lead from water is to filter it. This is something that’s said often – not all filters are created equal. When it comes to buying a filter, according to CNN, “caution is in order, as not all filtering systems on the market block lead. The NSF lists ratings on three types: reverse osmosis, filter systems and distillation. It warns that many popular pitcher-type filters don’t meet today’s standards for lead reduction, although they may filter other contaminants.”


  1. “The History of Lead – Part 3.” The History of Lead – Part 3. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
  2. Squatriti, P., ed. (2000). Working with Water in Medieval Europe: Technology and Resource Use. pp. 134 ff. ISBN 978-90-04-10680-2.
  3. “Lead in History.” Lead in History. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
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