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Do you have lead in your pipes and faucets? Here's how you can find out

Jul 14, 2016

There are several potential sources of lead in your home plumbing that can get into your drinking water.

  • The service line connecting the water main to your house could be made out of lead
  • The solder in your plumbing could have lead in it
  • And older brass faucets and valves can contain lead

So how do you figure out what you have in your house?

This question has been nagging at me for some time. At our house, we drink the water straight from the tap.

I always took solace in reading my city’s drinking water reports. Those reports say Ann Arbor’s water is treated, so it’s not corrosive to plumbing.

From the 2015 report:

“By controlling the corrosivity of the water, the amount of lead in your drinking water is kept to a minimum.”

"Kept to a minimum." OK.

But the experts tell us that “there is no safe level of lead exposure.”

This stuff is just not good for you, especially if you’re a developing child or a pregnant mother. The Centers for Disease Control say that even at low levels, lead has been “shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.”

What kind of a service line do you have?

To find out how people can find out whether they have lead in their plumbing, I called up Randall Whitaker. He trains plumbers and pipefitters for the UA Local 190 in Ann Arbor.

Water service line coming into my house in the lower corner of the basement.
Credit Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

To see what kind of a drinking water service line I have coming from the water main into my house, we had to go into the basement.

“You’re typically going to find it, obviously, in the basement. Or if you don’t have a basement, it would be usually the lowest point in the house… usually in a corner, probably nearest to the road and low to the floor,” said Whitaker.

In my house, the supply line was in the basement down in the corner, connecting up with the rest of the plumbing.

He scraped the supply line coming into the house and we could see a brownish/copper color.

I have a copper supply line.

“The first trick, without even having to touch it or do anything, if you see that it’s a dark matte gray color, that’s usually a good tip that that is a lead service line,” says Whitaker.

He said if I had a lead service line, when he scraped it with a screwdriver, the metal would have been soft and turned really shiny.

He showed me how it would look on this piece of lead that he brought along:

A piece of lead that has been scraped with a screwdriver.
Credit Randall Whitaker / UA Local 190 in Ann Arbor

Aside from lead or copper, you can also have a plastic or galvanized steel service line coming into your house.

If it’s steel, a magnet would stick to it. If it’s lead or copper, a magnet would not stick to it.

If you want some good step-by-step instructions, NPR developed a great tool to help you determine what kind of a service line you have.

(Find it at the bottom of this post or click here to try it out.)

One important thing to note: even if you don't have a lead service line in the basement, that doesn't mean you're lead free. It is possible there could've been a partial line replacement: part of the line under your yard could still be lead, even if some of it is copper or steel. Or your city might still have lead service lines in place from the water main to the curb. Best thing to do next: call your city to see what kind of records it has. And you can get your water tested.

How old is the plumbing in your home?

I have an older house. It was built in 1910. The plumbing was updated at some point since I have copper lines running throughout the house.

Solder on a copper pipe. After 1986, plumbers started using a "lead free" solder.
Credit Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Whitaker suspects the solder that was used to hold the copper joints together has some lead in it. He gave the solder a little scrape and could see that shiny color he was talking about.

He said there’s no way to know for sure by doing that scrape test on solder, but it’s more than likely that the solder used in my home is what’s called “50/50 solder” - 50% lead, 50% tin.

In 1986, the U.S. mandated a “lead free” solder for plumbing, so the age of your house and knowledge of when the plumbing was installed can help you here.

Other types of plumbing you might find in your house include older, galvanized steel pipes - and plastic water pipes. Neither contain lead, but older galvanized steel pipes can corrode and these corroded areas can be a place where leached lead, from, say, a lead service line, can gather.

What type of faucets do you have - and how old are they?

A lot of faucets and valves in homes have brass in them. Not all of them do - some faucets and valves can be made of plastic, steel, or ceramic. But brass is still widely used.

Brass is an alloy made mostly of copper and zinc, but when they made these faucets and valves from the late 1970s to 2014, the brass could also have up to 8% lead in it.

Andy Kireta is with the Copper Development Association, a non-profit association that promotes the copper industry. Brass alloys are are part of that industry.

Kireta says companies added lead to the brass alloy to help with the manufacturing process and to improve the reliability of valves.

"Leaded brass has been a staple of the industry for a long time," Kireta said. "To be able to be machined quickly and easily, maintain a leak free connection, leaded brasses were particularly good at it."

On January 4, 2014, all faucets and valves that come into contact with drinking water had to meet a stricter standard mandated by a new law. From that point forward, the standard dropped to .25% lead allowed for “the wetted surface” of brass in drinking water faucets and valves.

Kireta says manufactures started adding other elements to brass alloys to replace the lead - things like bismuth, silicon, and sulfur.

"There's a number of lead-free replacement brass alloys out there, serving these roles that leaded brasses used to serve, that work as well or better than the leaded alloys," says Kireta.

The law does not cover valves and faucets not typically used for drinking water - valves for showers or those used for toilets, for instance.

When you find lead in your plumbing, should you replace any of these things?

The plumbers and experts I talked to said you have less to worry about if you’re on a public drinking water supply, and the drinking water operator has maintained what they call “corrosion control” in the system.

When this is done, drinking water pipes and brass faucets and valves can have a coating of minerals and other deposits in them that keep the lead from leaching into the system.

This is what Flint, Michigan lacked, and it’s why the lead problem got so bad there.

But even with this coating, lead can still turn up in your drinking water. It can happen with brass faucets when the water sits unused for a period of time.

To really know what’s going on, it’s a good idea to have your water tested. You can call your drinking water utility, or your county health department, to find out how to test your water.

If you suspect you have lead in your plumbing, here are some other precautions you can take:

1) Flush the water. This is especially a good idea if you know the water has sat in your plumbing for a period of time (six hours or more). The more the water runs, the less time it has to come into contact with any lead in your plumbing. To flush water from a faucet that might have lead, let the water run for 30 seconds or so. If you suspect you have lead solder or a lead service line, flush it until it becomes colder.

Here's what the Great Lakes Water Authority recommends:

The amount of time you should run the cold water to flush your internal plumbing depends on whether you
have a lead service line, the length of the lead service line and amount of plumbing in your home. Running
your cold water until it feels noticeably colder will indicate the water is from outside your premises’
plumbing. Once that has occurred, flush an additional 1 to 2 minutes to ensure you are receiving water from
the water main and not your service line. Note: At one gallon per minute, a 2-minute flush for a
50-foot service line is the recommended standard.

2) Replacing plumbing components. Replacing faucets is a less expensive proposition than replacing all of your plumbing, or replacing your drinking water service line. But if you’re concerned, and water tests show there might be a problem, it’s worth considering.

3) Buy a water filter to attach to your faucet where you get your drinking water. Filters have been shown to be very effective at removing lead. Look for filters certified to do so. You can also consider other water purifying devices such as reverse osmosis systems.

There’s no reason to panic about all of this, but it is a good idea to learn where exposure to lead might come from. This is especially true if you have young children in the home or if you are a pregnant mother.

And of course, one major exposure pathway for lead is through exposure to old paint in homes. For more information about that, check out this post.

Rebecca Williams contributed reporting to this story.

*This post has been updated with additional information about lead service lines.