How You Can Detect Levels of Lead in Drinking Water

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Lead is a toxic heavy metal previously used in various industrial materials, including gasoline, paint, and, you guessed it... water pipes.

While the use of lead in water distribution systems is now outlawed thanks to modern research revealing its negative health impacts, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates there are between 6-10 million lead service lines still in use in the U.S. today.

So what does it look like when dangerous levels of lead are lurking in your drinking water?

The truth is, lead-contaminated water doesn’t smell, taste, or look any different than clean water and it is almost impossible to detect without the right tools. This guide will help you learn more about water quality resources as well as practical ways to reduce your lead exposure through drinking water.

Lead Exposure From Water Sources

Common sources of lead exposure include:

  • Lead-based paint which was widely used in residential settings before it was banned in 1978

  • Soil contaminated with leaded gasoline and industrial emissions

  • And most notably, drinking water

Water supply facilities are equipped with technologies for lead removal. Still, there's a long maze of water pipes and plumbing fixtures between the treatment plant and your kitchen faucet where leaching can occur.

Along this pathway, water moves through a distribution system that may include lead service lines (the pipes that connect your household plumbing to the water main in the street), lead solder, brass faucets, and other potentially lead-containing plumbing materials.

So while water may be safe upon exit of the water treatment facility, depending on the water composition, the age of your home's pipes, and several other factors, the water quality reaching your tap may not be.

Important to note: lead cannot be absorbed through your skin, so bathing, showering, and washing your hands pose a low risk of lead exposure, even in the presence of lead plumbing fixtures.

The Lead and Copper Rule

As part of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the EPA issued a regulation in 1991 called the Lead and Copper Rule to reduce lead and copper levels in drinking water. This regulation still applies to all public water systems that serve more than 50 people and includes the following parameters:

Corrosion Control Treatment

Water treatment plants must establish a corrosion control program to reduce leaching into drinking water from pipes, fittings, and fixtures. Corrosion control typically involves adding chemicals to the water that create a protective coating or scale inside pipes.


The LCR also requires public water systems to monitor customers' tap water at the point of entry into the home. If more than 10% of sampled taps exceed action levels of 15 ppb for lead or 1.3 ppm for copper, the water system must take further action to control corrosion and inform the affected communities. It is important to remember that action levels are not considered "safe levels." There is no safe level of lead in drinking water. This rule also does very little for the potential 10% of consumers experiencing higher levels of contaminants than these action levels.

Public Education

Public Water Systems are required to provide the public with information about the dangers of lead and copper in their drinking water, steps they can take to reduce their exposure, and resources for copper and lead testing.

Lead Service Line Replacement

If public water systems optimize corrosion resistance plans and action levels are still consistently exceeded, water suppliers are required to begin replacing lead service lines.

Health Effects of Lead in Drinking Water

As previously mentioned, action levels are simply the regulations that hold water companies accountable for their water quality. These are not the levels deemed "safe" for consumption by the EPA or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In fact, even low levels of lead exposure can lead to serious health implications.

Here are some symptoms of lead-contaminated water consumption the EPA warns about:


  • High blood pressure

  • Kidney damage

  • Reproductive problems in both men and women

Pregnant Women

  • Reduced fetal growth

  • Premature birth

Young Children

  • Behavior and learning disabilities

  • Slow growth rate

  • Hearing problems

  • Anemia

The World Health Organization also warns that high levels of lead exposure can lead to severe lead poisoning, resulting in brain and central nervous system damage, coma, convulsions, and even death.

How Do I Know If There Is Lead In My Drinking Water?

You cannot see, taste, or smell lead in drinking water, making it extremely difficult to detect.

Here are a few resources available to help:

Consumer Confidence Report (CCR)

Every year, the EPA requires all public water suppliers to deliver a Consumer Confidence Report that provides detailed information about your water quality, including whether there are any levels of lead present. We created an easy to use “What’s in Your Water?” database that compiles this data and allows you to easily search for the water quality in your area. Your water supplier can also provide information about your local water service lines to determine if any still contain lead.

Lead Testing

Water testing companies can test your tap water by sending samples through a state-certified lab to determine the amount of lead. Self-testing kits are also available at most hardware stores. You can contact your local public health department or water utility company for more information about lead testing.

Plumbing Inspection

A thorough inspection of your home's plumbing, particularly if your home was built before 1986, can alert you to the presence of lead pipes, lead solder, and lead-containing plumbing fixtures that may need to be replaced to reduce your risk of lead exposure.

If you find that your drinking water contains lead, taking steps to reduce your exposure is essential.

Protect yourself from Lead-Contaminated Water

If you've found that your water contains lead, or if you want to prevent lead exposure before it occurs, you may be tempted to head to the bottled water shelves on your next grocery haul. While bottled water can be an excellent short-term option for widespread lead contamination events, such as in Flint, Michigan, it's not a great option for long-term use. Bottled water can contain more contaminants than tap water in some cases and can expose you to slivers of microplastics. Why trade one health risk for another?

Here are a few alternative ways you can protect yourself and your family from lead and other contaminants:

Run your water before use

Water that sits in your pipes for several hours may contain higher levels of lead. Running your tap water for at least 30 seconds before use is recommended.

Use cold water

Hot water dissolves lead more quickly than cold water, so if you use water from the tap for drinking and cooking, it's best to use cold water. Also, it's important to remember that boiling water does not remove lead.

Replace lead pipes and fixtures

If your house contains lead-containing plumbing, it may be time to replace it with a lead-free alternative.

Test regularly

Lead can enter the water system at any time. It's important to test your tap water regularly to stay current on the quality of the water entering your home.

Use a water filter

Water filters are perhaps the easiest and safest way to prevent exposure to lead through drinking water. But not all filters are created equal! Learn more about the lead filtering process and how to choose the right filter for you.

Get complete confidence in your water