Everyone deserves access to clean and safe drinking water. That’s why it’s important to know where your water comes from and how toxins like lead can enter it.
How does lead enter drinking water?
Lead is a common toxic metal that can enter your drinking water through pipes and plumbing materials made of lead. The Centers for Disease Control states that exposure to lead, even at low levels, can damage children’s developing brains and nervous systems, contributing to lower IQs, hearing loss, and learning and behavior problems in and out of the classroom.
Source water from a water treatment plant rarely contains lead. Instead, lead can be released into water from plumbing materials that contain lead. Common sources of lead in drinking water include lead pipes, faucets, and fixtures, as well as galvanized pipes, brass or chrome-plated fixtures containing lead, and lead solder connecting copper piping. When present, a lead service line can be the biggest contributor of lead in drinking water.
Lead service lines
A water service line is the pipe that delivers water to your home from the water main in the street. If it’s made of lead or galvanized material, the service line can leach or unpredictably release toxic lead particles into the water as it travels to your home.
It’s estimated that up to 10 million lead service lines exist in the United States. Although the Safe Drinking Water Act banned the use of lead service lines in 1986, they were commonly connected to homes before this ban went into place. If you live in an older home or building, it’s important to learn if your home is connected to one of these pipes.
How to determine if your home is connected to a lead service line
Because lead service lines can be a major contributor of lead in drinking water, it’s important to figure out if your home is connected to one of these pipes.
1. Contact your water utility
To learn if your home is connected to a lead service line, contact your water utility and ask if they have information about the material of your service line.
Some communities have public maps available online that show the material of water service lines connected to homes and buildings in the area. Learn more and see if your community has an online map here.
2. Visually inspect your service line and plumbing material
If your water utility doesn’t have information about your service line, conduct a visual inspection by checking the water service line where it enters the building either on your own or with assistance from a licensed plumber. Your service line will usually enter your home through the basement and connect to your water meter. If it’s made of lead, the service line will be silvery-gray and shiny if you gently scratch it with a key, and a magnet will not stick to it. Check out NPR’s interactive web-based tool for guidance on visually inspecting for a lead service line.
Source: City of Chicago, chicagowaterquality.org
Test your drinking water for lead
Beyond investigating for a lead service line, another way to learn about your risk of exposure to lead in drinking water is by testing your water for lead. Testing can help you identify potential sources of lead in your internal plumbing system as well as your service line.
Your water utility or local government may provide free water testing resources. In Chicago, you can request a free lead in water testing kit for your home through 311 Chicago. If you’re a licensed child care provider in the state of Illinois, you can test your water for free through LeadCare Illinois.
Removing lead from your water
Once you have a better idea of how lead might be entering your drinking water, you can start to make a plan for removing lead from your water. Learn more about how to develop a mitigation plan from LeadCare Illinois (this program is for child care providers, but the mitigation strategies can also be implemented at your home).
If you discover you’re connected to a lead service line, start using an NSF-53 and 42 certified filter for your drinking water and see if it’s possible to remove and replace your lead service line. Reach out to your water utility to learn best practices and see if there are financial resources available to assist you. The City of Chicago has incentive programs available through Lead-Safe Chicago.
Removing and replacing lead service lines is an important step towards tackling lead in drinking water and protecting the health of current and future generations.