Lead is America's Top Water Concern According to 2021 Survey

See key findings from our 2021 Water Quality Survey revealing people's concern about lead contamination in tap water. Plus, learn how to protect your home.

By: Rachel Carollo

Every October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) come together to lead a national call to action to raise awareness of lead poisoning prevention and reduce childhood exposure to lead. A recent study found that over half of American children have detectable lead levels in their blood. And according to the CDC, childhood lead poisoning is considered the most preventable environmental disease of young children. Even low blood levels in children can result in behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems, anemia, among other health issues.

Lead can be found in all parts of our environment, from the air we breathe to the soil in our backyard and paint on our walls, and as we’ve seen prominently displayed in news headlines — the water in our homes. In observance of this year’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, taking place October 24-30th, we’re diving deep into the results from our 3rd Annual Aquasana Water Quality Survey to explore Americans’ relationship with lead and their drinking water. We scoured the country to untap how U.S. adults really feel about the harmful toxin, including which groups of people carry the most concern and how driving factors, like the pandemic, impacted their levels of unease.

Key findings uncovered in this article are based on Aquasana’s survey of 2,143 U.S. adults (ages 18-79). The year-over-year data was collected pre-COVID in 2020 and during COVID in March 2021, enabling us to effectively analyze how the pandemic has impacted Americans’ concerns and behaviors related to water quality. Visit our Info Center to learn more about how Americans feel about water quality, including surprising generational gaps, how parents lead the charge, and how COVID-19 has driven fear in more ways than one.

Americans are more concerned about lead than any other drinking water contaminant

According to the 3rd Annual Aquasana Water Quality Survey, lead continues to reign supreme as America’s number one drinking water contaminant of concern. Interestingly though, while the dangerous carcinogen tops the list of Americans’ most feared contaminants for a second consecutive year, the percentage of people who selected it fell by 12% compared to 2020.

In contrast, the survey found that concern over bacteria, cysts, and viruses, in particular, climbed by 19% between February 2020 and March 2021, the exact same time that COVID-19 emerged and raged through the nation. In fact, previously ranked toward the bottom of the list, bacteria, cysts, and viruses jumped up to become the second highest contaminants of concern this year behind lead.

Even in the face of a global pandemic, the very serious threat of lead in drinking water continues to dominate public concern in the U.S. Just how much, though, varies by both age and geography. For example, we know that younger generations tend to be more knowledgeable about water quality topics overall, including lead exposure. According to our survey, levels of concern over lead in tap water actually decrease by age. Gen Z, for example, was the most likely age group to select lead as their top contaminant concern (42%), followed by Millennials (29%), and then Gen X (25%). The least concerned about lead, Baby Boomers (23%), instead showed higher concerns this year about bacteria, viruses, and cysts — and, as we know, are the age group most impacted by the deadly pandemic.

When looking across the country, lead remained the top contaminant concern in all regions except the Southern states, where more people voted for bacteria, cysts, and viruses (30% vs. 27%). The survey also found that people who live in urban areas are 23% more likely than those in suburban and rural areas to select lead as their top concern.

What’s driving Americans’ concern about lead in tap water?

While reasons driving Americans’ concern vary, they all point back to a growing awareness around the presence of lead in tap water. Among the U.S. adults who cited lead as their primary concern in drinking water, the majority said they chose lead because it’s the contaminant they hear the most about in the news (41%). Close behind, the second most common reason for concern is awareness of the harmful health effects of lead exposure (35%). The rest who chose lead did so because of personal experience in one way or another, whether lead was found in their city’s water (14%), found in their own home (6%), or they know someone who has been impacted by lead-contaminated water (3%).

Since news of the water crisis in Flint, MI broke in 2016, new headlines about lead detection in water supplies across the country, including in schools and major cities like Washington, D.C., Chicago, Oakland, and more. Just this summer, a National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) analysis of the most recent EPA data found that between January 1, 2018 and December 31, 2020, 186 million people in the United States — 56% of the country's population — drank from drinking water systems with lead levels exceeding the level of 1 part per billion (ppb) recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics to protect children from lead in school water fountains.

Keep in mind that the EPA and health experts agree that no amount of lead is safe, so any level above zero is deemed unsafe. Lead exposure has a long list of lasting health effects in children and adults including developmental delay, increased risk of miscarriage, hearing and memory loss, digestive issues, kidney damage, high blood pressure, and mood disorders among others.

Despite increasing headlines about lead contamination and growing awareness of the dangers of lead exposure, some people still underestimate the significant threat that lead exposure presents. Even if your home’s water is lead-free when it goes through your local treatment facility, you’re still at risk for contamination after it makes the journey through piping to your tap. It’s estimated there are up to 12.8 million pipes in the U.S. still in use today that are either made of lead or use lead soldering. In fact, The Water Quality Association reports that nearly all the lead in users’ tap water does not come from the primary water source or from the municipal treatment plant, but as a result of corrosion that occurs after the water leaves the treatment facility. That’s why it’s important to have your home’s water tested and use a water filter to protect your family from lead and other contaminants that can be present in tap water, including PFOA/PFOS, asbestos, pharmaceuticals, herbicides, pesticides, and more.

Take action and protect your home’s drinking water from lead

If you’re worried about the presence of lead in your drinking water, the first step towards protecting yourself and loved ones is by getting information about your area’s tap water. Following a 1998 amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act, federal law requires municipal water systems to send out a yearly water quality report detailing any contaminants present in the local water supply. The only way to know your water has been contaminated after it leaves the treatment facility is to have your water tested through a service like Clean Water Testing.

If you find lead in your water, do not boil water or rely on “flushing” water lines because this can actually increase the concentration. Instead, start by installing a water filtration system that has been independently tested and certified for the reduction of lead. Certification by an independent third-party testing group like NSF or IAPMO is key, because not all water filters are capable of removing lead. In fact, some of the most commonly used types of water filtration systems are often unable to remove lead. When choosing a water filter, always look for certification badging with NSF/ANSI Standard 53 on the packaging, which means that the filter has been tested and proven effective at reducing lead from tap water.

If you’re looking for a filter certified to remove lead at the main water line, consider a whole home system like our Optim®H2O Whole House Water Filter that’s IAPMO tested and certified to remove up to 99% of lead along with other contaminants. However, if you have lead pipes in your home, the best option will be utilizing a point of use filter that removes contaminants at the place of use. If you’re interested in a point of use filter, we have a wide selection of under sink and countertop systems that are certified and tested to remove lead. Additionally, make sure to protect yourself when you leave home by using a bottle with a built-in filter or bottling your own filtered water at home.

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Ultimately, our survey revealed that Americans continue to be concerned about lead. We learned that even during a pandemic, lead remained people’s top water contaminant concern. We also learned who was most concerned about lead contamination in tap water and their reasons for concern.

Most importantly, we learned that when purchasing a water filter to protect your daily water use from lead it’s imperative to check for certifications verifying the filter will actually remove lead. Aquasana offers a wide range of water filters that are NSF and IAPMO certified to remove up to 99% of lead among other contaminants. Browse our full selection of filters to find the right solution for your home, or contact us for more information and assistance.

This Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, take the opportunity to learn more about the water quality in your municipality and home, and make sure you are taking the proper steps to protect your family from the dangers of lead. Visit the CDC’s website to learn more about lead poisoning prevention and reducing childhood exposure to lead.

Survey definitions

Survey methodology:

  • The findings presented in this article are the result of a March 2021 study of 2,143 U.S. adults, ages 18-79, conducted by Aquasana. (Confidence Level: 95%, Margin of Error: 2%)

Survey definitions:

Age Cohorts (based on Pew Research)

  • Baby Boomers: 1946-64
  • Gen X: 1965-80
  • Millennials: 1981-96
  • Gen Z: 1997-2012

Regions (based on U.S. Census map):

  • Northeast: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut
  • Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin
  • South: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Florida
  • West: Idaho, Alaska, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, California, Colorado

Urban, Suburban, and Rural Classifications:

  • The urban, suburban, and rural classifications we use are based on the database and definitions from Great Data, which developed their logic using U.S. Census data.