Lead & Copper Health Concerns

Frequently Asked Questions about Lead and Copper in Water from Pipes and Plumbing

Lead is a common naturally occurring metallic element that can be found in air, soil, and water. It is also a powerful toxin that is harmful to human health. Lead was commonly used in gasoline and paint until the 1970s and is still sometimes found in products such as ceramics, batteries, ammunition, and cosmetics. Lead was used for centuries in plumbing because of its pliability and resistance to leaks; in fact, lead’s chemical symbol, Pb, is derived from the Latin word for plumbing. In 1986, U.S. Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act to prohibit the use of pipes, solder or flux that were not “lead free.” At the time “lead free” was defined as solder and flux with no more than .2% lead and pipes with no more than 8%. In 2014, the maximum allowable lead content was reduced from not more than 8% to not more than a weighted average of 0.25% of the wetted surface of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures.

Lead is a toxic metal that can cause immediate health effects at high doses and long term health effects if it builds up in the body over many years. Lead can cause brain and kidney damage in addition to effects on the blood and vitamin D metabolism. Pregnant women and young children are particularly vulnerable because the physical and behavioral effects of lead occur at lower exposure levels in children than in adults. In children, low levels of exposure have been linked to central and peripheral nervous system damage, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells. While people are more commonly exposed to lead through paint, soil and dust, U.S. EPA estimates infants who consume mostly mixed formula can receive 40 percent to 60 percent of their exposure to lead from drinking water.

Lead is not present when the water leaves our Forest Park Water treatment facility, nor is it present in the water mains running beneath the streets. However, in some older homes lead may be present in the pipe connecting the home to the water system – known as a service line — or in the home plumbing. Lead in service pipes, plumbing or fixtures can dissolve, or particles can break off into water and end up at the tap.

Lead can be harmful even at very low levels and can accumulate in our bodies over time, so wherever possible steps should be taken to reduce or eliminate your household’s exposure. While risks vary based on individual circumstances and the amount of water consumed, no concentration of lead is considered “safe.” Households with pregnant women, infants, or young children are most vulnerable to the harmful effects of lead at low levels.

Because lead is not absorbed through the skin, bathing or showering in water containing lead is not considered a health risk.

Lead can impact animals the same way it does humans. Because domestic animals consume a relatively high volume of water relative to their body weight, pet owners with lead in their home plumbing may want to take precautions.

No. In fact, lead in drinking water generally represents only about 20% of total exposure, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, drinking water can account for more than half of lead exposure in children because of their lower body weight. Additionally, because no level of lead is considered safe, completely eliminating potential sources of lead is strongly advised.

Copper is a reddish metal that occurs naturally in rock, soil, water, sediment, and air. It has many practical uses in our society and is commonly found in coins, electrical wiring, and pipes. It is an essential element for living organisms, including humans, and in small amounts, necessary in our diet to ensure good health. However, some people who drink water containing copper in excess of the action level over a relatively short amount of time could experience adverse health effects, including vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and nausea. Some people who drink water containing copper in excess of the action level over many years could suffer liver or kidney damage.

The human body has a natural mechanism for maintaining the proper level of copper in it. However, children under one year old have not yet developed this mechanism and, as a result, are more vulnerable to the toxic effects of copper. People with Wilson’s disease also have a problem with maintaining the proper balance and should also exercise particular care in limiting exposure to copper. People with Wilson’s disease should consult their physician.