Lead in Drinking Water

Lead in Drinking Water

Lead is a highly toxic metal. It can be found in both public and private water systems, in household plumbing, and in well components.

Until around the 1950s, lead pipes were commonly used for drinking water. Lead-based solder containing as much as 50% lead was used to join standard copper water pipes until it was outlawed in 1988. However, lead solder could still be made up of 8% lead. In 2010, Vermont became one of the first states to further lower the amount of lead from 8% to 0.25% in fixtures. This means that plumbing fixtures and supplies with more than 0.25% lead cannot be sold, offered for sale or installed in Vermont.

Health Concerns: Is lead harmful to my health?

Lead is a highly toxic metal that can cause serious and permanent health problems. Children and pregnant women are at special risk. Too much lead in the body, or lead poisoning, can damage the brain, kidneys and nervous system.

Young children’s bodies are developing, which makes them more sensitive to lead. Children also absorb lead more easily than adults. Lead in a child’s body can slow down growth and development, make it hard to learn, damage hearing and speech, and cause behavior problems. A baby can be harmed by a woman’s exposure to lead before and during pregnancy. In adults, lead can cause high blood pressure and result in decreased fertility in men.

Source: How does lead get into my water?

Lead gets into drinking water as it moves through lead or galvanized iron pipes and fittings, lead solder, and brass or chrome fixtures.

You are more likely to have lead in your water if you have:

  • Signs of corrosion, such as a metallic taste to water or blue-green staining.
  • A shallow water system like a spring or shallow well, such as a dug or bored well.
  • Low pH and low alkalinity levels in your water.

Do you know if you have lead pipes in your home? Check out NPR's online tool to help you find out. If you are on public or town water, your water utility will know what the pipes are made of from their service line to your meter, but they do not know what pipes you have inside your home. If you are on public water, test your water for lead to find out if your pipes or fixtures are a source of lead.

Testing: How do I know if lead is in my water?

You cannot see, smell or taste lead. Testing is the only way to know if lead is in your drinking water. The Health Department recommends testing your private water source for lead every five years.

There is no safe level of exposure to lead. Vermont has set a health advisory level for lead to the lowest level that can be detected, which is 0.001 mg/L (milligrams per liter).

For public water systems, the Environmental Protection Agency sets an action level at 0.015 mg/L for lead in water. A public water system must take action to reduce the lead level in water if more than 10 percent of the water samples they test from household taps have lead levels over 0.015 mg/L.

If you have lead in your water above 0.001 mg/L, the Health Department recommends taking action to lower lead levels in your water. Consider installing a treatment system to remove lead, replacing pipes or plumbing fixtures and fittings, drinking and preparing food with bottled water, or getting water from a known safe source.

Order an inorganic chemical test (Kit C) by calling the Health Department Laboratory at 802-338-4724 or 800-660-9997 (toll-free in Vermont). You can also use a certified drinking water lab to test for inorganic chemicals. Search for a certified drinking water lab

How to Test Your Water for Lead

There are two types of lead in water tests: first draw and flush. Sample water from the faucet you use for drinking and cooking for both tests.

First Draw: A first draw sample will tell you if there is lead in your plumbing. The first draw sample collects the first water that comes out of the tap. Sample water first thing in the morning or after the water has been sitting in the pipes for at least six hours.

Flush: A flush sample will help you find out if the lead is coming from the pipes outside your home. Let the water run for three to five minutes or until the water is as cold as it can get before you sample. If you are on public (town) water, a flush sample will be the water coming from the water main connected to your home. If you are on private water, the flush sample will be the water between your pressure tank and well.  

If lead is found in your first draw sample, do a flush sample. Water in a flush sample is less likely to contain lead than water in a first draw sample. This is because of the longer time water is in contact with any plumbing part that may have lead in it. In addition, water sitting in the pipes inside the house becomes warmer. Over time, warmer water will take in more lead if there is lead in solder or in plumbing fixtures or fittings.

Test Results: Is my result a problem?

There is no safe level of lead in drinking water. Take action to reduce lead levels as low as possible.

Treatment Options: Can I remove or lower the levels of lead in my water?

Lead levels in drinking water can be lowered with treatment. Boiling and sediment filters will not remove lead. Re-test for lead after any treatment system is installed to make sure levels are below the health advisory level.

Flushing out the pipes can sometimes lower the level of lead in your water below the health advisory level. If the flush sample shows lead levels below 0.001 mg/L, flushing in the morning and when you have been away from home can lower the amount of lead in your drinking water.

Acid neutralization treatment, or corrosion control, can raise the pH and alkalinity of the water. This will keep lead from leaching into the water from your home's pipes. Corrosion control does not keep lead from leaching into the water from pipes between the well and treatment system. It is not recommended if lead is found in the flush sample.

If flushing does not lower lead levels in your water below 0.001 mg/L, you can install one of these point-of-use (POU) treatment systems:
Countertop (plug-in) Distillation Units
These units boil water and then recondense the steam. The lead is left behind during this process, along with hardness and other minerals. These units can produce several gallons of lead-free water per day.

Reverse Osmosis
This system uses a synthetic membrane that allows water to go through but leaves lead behind. The membrane is continually rinsed. When treating for lead, this system is typically installed under the kitchen sink. Install a system with a National Sanitation Foundation (NSF/ANSI) Standard 58 Certification. Search for an NSF/ANSI Standard 58 certified reverse osmosis treatment system

Carbon Filtration
This system uses a filter with carbon in it. As the water moves through the filter, lead is trapped by the carbon until the filter is saturated. Since the carbon filter can remove other minerals found in your water, it is difficult to know how long it will last. Some large carbon filters have been known to last for years, while some small filters may last for only weeks. Install a carbon filtration system with an NSF/ANSI Standard 53 Certification. Search for an NSF/ANSI Standard 53 certified carbon filtration system

Finally, you can remove lead from your water by replacing any lead parts in your water system (for example, pipes, plumbing fixtures and fittings).

Financial Assistance: Is there funding available to help me pay for my water system or treatment?

Vermont Wastewater and Potable Water Revolving Loan Fund
This program, also known as the On-Site Loan Program, is available to certain Vermont residents for the repair or replacement of failed water supply and on-site wastewater systems. The On-Site Loan Program is funded and administered by the Agency of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Conservation with loan underwriting and servicing provided by the Opportunities Credit Union in Winooski. Your drinking water supply has to be a failed system and you must be living in the residence on a year-round basis to be eligible. The family income cannot exceed 200% of the state median household income. For more information about eligibility and how to apply, call the On-Site Loan Program.

The NeighborWorks Alliance of Vermont
The NeighborWorks Alliance is made up of five local organizations offering full affordable housing services for income-eligible individuals. You may qualify for help from this program if you need money to install a water treatment system, drill a well, or repair or replace your septic system. For more information on eligibility, contact the local NeighborWorks Group in your region.

Single Family Housing Repair Loans and Grants
This program offers loans and grants to existing homeowners for well construction, repair and sealing. It's administered by the Rural Development office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The program is for low-income families who live in a rural area or a community with a population of 25,000 or less. The family income cannot exceed 50% of the median county income. Individuals who are 62 years of age or older may qualify for a grant or a combination of a loan and grant. Younger applicants are eligible only for loans.

Burlington, South Burlington, Essex Junction, Winooski and parts of Colchester are ineligible for the program. Even if your property is in an eligible area, your eligibility is still subject to income limits. For more information or to find out if your property is in an eligible area, call the USDA Rural Development Office at 802-828-6022.