Lead 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.
MVWA continues to identify lead services in our distribution system and to update our records accordingly. There are many reasons why inaccurate records exist, including unreported household/service line plumbing work, lost or missing data transmittals within the water utility, and clerical errors and omissions. Prior to 1976, the customer maintained the entire service line from the main to the house. After that date, the City of Utica Board of Water Supply took possession of the service line from the main in the road to the curb stop (shutoff); the remainder of the service from the curb to the home remained the homeowner’s responsibility. Currently, our best estimate is that there are ~2500 lead or partial lead services in the system.
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.
Because it is colorless and tasteless, lead is not readily apparent in water. In fact, the only way to know for certain whether your drinking water contains lead is to have your water tested by a certified laboratory. MVWA can test your water for the presence of lead at no cost to you. While this service is provided free of charge, the homeowner or tenant must be responsible for ensuring that the proper procedure is followed. If you wish to take advantage of this free testing, please contact our Water Quality Department at (315) 792-0338.
Lead is almost never present when water flows from the 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.
The best way to remove risks of lead in water is to completely replace all sources of lead. But there are also steps you can take right away to reduce lead levels in your water.
- Run the Tap Before Use – Lead levels are likely at their highest when water has been sitting in the pipe for several hours. Clear this water from your pipes by running the cold water for several minutes. This allows you to draw fresh water from the main. You can use this water on house plants or to flush toilets.
- Clean Aerators – Aerators are small attachments at the tips of faucets which regulate the flow of water. They can accumulate small particles of lead in their screens. It’s a good idea to remove your aerators at least monthly and clean them out.
- Use Cold Water for Cooking and Drinking – Always cook and prepare baby formula with cold water, because hot water dissolves lead more quickly, resulting in higher levels in water.
- Filter the Water – Many home water filters are effective at removing lead. If you purchase a filter, make sure it is certified for lead removal and that you maintain it properly. Find out more on filter certification at www.nsf.org.
Households with pregnant women, infants or young children should be especially aware of the potential for lead exposure through drinking water. If you suspect there may be lead in your home plumbing, consider having your water tested at a certified laboratory. MVWA can test your water for the presence of lead at no cost to you. While this service is provided free of charge, the homeowner or tenant must be responsible for ensuring that the proper procedure is followed. If you wish to take advantage of this free testing, please contact our Water Quality Department at (315) 792-0338. If you decide to replace your lead service with copper, please contact customer service to coordinate this work with MVWA.
If lead is detected, consider purchasing a filter certified for lead removal or using an alternate source of water until the problem is corrected. Babies and young children are most vulnerable to the harmful effects of lead at low levels. 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.
Because lead is not absorbed through the skin, bathing or showering in water containing lead is not considered a health risk.
To prevent lead from dissolving into water from lead service lines or home plumbing, MVWA adjusts the water’s chemistry at the treatment plant. This process is known as corrosion control. We sample water at homes considered to be high risk to ensure our corrosion control remains effective. Although corrosion control can reduce risks, the best way to assure your home is safe from lead exposure through water is to remove the potential sources of lead.
You can hire a certified plumber or contact MVWA to inspect both your service line and other materials in contact with your drinking water. In the MVWA system, lead service lines are mostly in homes constructed before the 1940s
You may be able to determine on your own if your service line is made of lead. Service lines typically enter the home in the basement or crawl space. If the pipe is lead, it will have a dull finish that shines brightly when scratched with a key or coin. Using a magnet can also help you identify a lead pipe, because even a strong magnet will not cling to lead.
Lead service lines are owned by MVWA up to the curb stop, or shut off, and the rest of the line (from curb stop to the meter in the home) is owned by the property owner. Replacing the entire lead service line is therefore a shared responsibility between MVWA and each customer. If you wish to change out the lead service line, this work must be coordinated with MVWA; otherwise you will have a partial lead service line (PLSL).
A PLSL is defined as when either, MVWA replaces the line from the main to the curb-stop, or shutoff, with a copper service line, or when the homeowner’s side is changed to copper and the MVWA portion is lead. If you have replaced your side, MVWA will be scheduling work to change our side to copper in the near future at our expense.
Past studies have indicated that PLSL replacements can potentially increase lead levels in drinking water within an individual home as the pipe material can be disrupted during the repair. We strongly encourage replacing lead service lines with copper to reduce the risk of lead exposure as long term exposures can have significant health impacts, especially for children under 5 years. Although lead isn’t present in the water MVWA sends to your house, lead inadvertently can get into water as it moves through lead-containing service lines and household plumbing.
Very few homes constructed after 1940 have lead service lines, and those built after 1986 were required to use plumbing materials with substantially reduced lead content. If you are concerned, consider having your water tested by a certified laboratory, or contact your utility. MVWA can test your water for the presence of lead at no cost to you. While this service is provided free of charge, the homeowner or tenant must be responsible for ensuring that the proper procedure is followed. If you wish to take advantage of this free testing, please contact our Water Quality Department at (315) 792-0338.
No. If you purchase a water filter or home treatment device, make sure it is independently certified for lead removal and that you maintain it properly. Find out more on filter certification at www.nsf.org.
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.