LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni

The crisis in Flint, Michigan surrounding lead-contaminated drinking water has made many people across the country question the safety of their own water systems and with good cause. Decaying infrastructure, which contributed to the situation in Flint, is an issue throughout the U.S.

Lead-contaminated drinking water can still be a problem even when your local water system meets the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) lead level standard (no more than 0.015 mg/L) and adheres to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Enacted by Congress in 1986, the SDWA mandates that materials used for installation and repair of any pipe, plumbing fixture or solder used for drinking water be certified as lead-free.

How is lead getting into your drinking water?

Lead in service lines and home plumbing is a pervasive problem. Until the passage of the SDWA, service lines were typically made of lead. Unlike the public water main they are connected to, service lines are usually the responsibility of homeowners, who may not even be aware what the line bringing water to their house is made of. Service line corrosion is a major source of lead contamination in drinking water. Replacing these lines can cost thousands of dollars and many people cannot afford the expense.

“The fact is your water can be safe to drink when it leaves the filtration plant but end up with higher lead levels when it comes out of the tap at your home,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Making federal or state funds available in the form of rebates or incentive programs could help homeowners afford these costly yet necessary repairs. The health of families across the U.S. is at stake.”

If you live in a home or apartment built after 1986, your drinking water can still have unsafe levels of lead. This can be due to older plumbing fixtures like faucets that were manufactured with higher lead content than what is allowed today and copper piping joined with lead solder. It was not until 2014 that a lead content standard was adopted in the U.S. to limit the amount of lead in plumbing fixtures and products.

Check your plumbing for lead:

  • Lead is a dull-gray metal that is soft enough to be easily scratched with a house key.
  • Look for copper pipes. In homes built before 1986, copper pipes are often connected with lead solder.

If you suspect lead:

  • Get your tap water tested. Click here to find an EPA-certified laboratory in your area.

If you find lead:

Do your children drink water from the garden hose?

They could be getting a mouthful of lead.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) applies only to faucets for kitchen and bathroom sinks.

In addition to your garden hose, this exemption includes shower heads and tub fillers. Never drink from these or any other plumbing sources. The CDC says showering and bathing is okay even if the water contains lead above the EPA’s action level because skin does not absorb lead in water.

  • Talk to your health care provider about being tested for lead exposure.
  • It may not be practical to replace your service line. A whole house filter system or single sink filters certified for lead reduction may be a less costly alternative.

Additional tips to prevent lead exposure:

  • Flush your pipes before drinking. Lead leaches out of pipes, so the more time water has been sitting in your home’s pipes, the more lead it may contain. Anytime the water in a particular faucet has not been used for at least six hours, “flush” your cold-water pipes by running the water until it becomes as cold as it will get.
  • Only use cold water for eating and drinking. Hot water is likely to contain higher levels of lead.

Lead is a naturally occurring element and while some exposure is unavoidable, minimizing it is essential. There is no safe level for children. Very low levels of exposure can result in lower IQ, reduced attention span, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia. Adults who are exposed to lead are at increased risk for high blood pressure, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems. Keeping lead out of your home’s drinking water is an important step in protecting your family’s health.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]