Lead is a common metal found in lead-based paint, air, oil, household dust, food, water, and certain types of pottery porcelain and pewter. The most common source of lead in drinking water is the corrosion, or wearing away, of household plumbing fixtures and water system components that contain trace amounts of lead. To minimize risk, both the state and federal governments limit the amount of lead allowed in materials to deliver tap water, such as pipes, solder, faucets, and other plumbing fixtures.
Washington Water monitors for lead (and copper) in drinking water once every three years as required by law. Samples are collected by customers from their kitchen tap. The number of homes sampled is based on population served by the system, and specific EPA site-selection criteria are used to determine which homes can participate. The results of the most recent round of Lead and Copper Monitoring is shown in your system’s annual water quality report. If you are unsure about lead levels in your home, or if your home was constructed before 1986 (when lead solder, used to join copper plumbing, was banned in Washington state), you may wish to take these precautions:
- Flush your lines. Anytime the faucet has been unused for more than six hours, before using the water for drinking or cooking, let it run from the cold water tap until the water gets noticeably colder, which is usually about 15 to 30 seconds. If your house has a lead service line to the water meter, you may have to flush the water for a longer time, perhaps one minute, before drinking. Lead pipes are typically no longer found in homes; however, they could still be present in older homes.
- Flush new pipes. Remove loose lead solder and debris from the plumbing materials installed in newly constructed homes, or homes in which the plumbing has recently been replaced, by removing the faucet strainers from all taps and running the water for 3 to 5 minutes. Thereafter, periodically remove the strainers and flush out any debris that has accumulated over time.
- Replace pipes joined with lead solder. If your copper pipes are joined with lead solder that has been installed illegally since it was banned in 1986, notify the plumber who did the work and request that he or she replace the lead solder with lead-free solder. Lead solder looks dull gray, and when scratched with a key looks shiny. In addition, notify the Washington State Department of Health Office of Drinking Water about the violation.
- Avoid cooking with or drinking water from the hot water tap. Hot water can dissolve lead more quickly than cold water. If you need hot water, draw water from the cold tap and heat it.
- Find out if the service line connecting your residence to the water meter is made of lead. It would be unusual to have a lead service line connecting your home to the meter today; however, they could still exist for older residences. The best way to determine if your service line is made of lead is by either hiring a licensed plumber to inspect the line or by contacting the plumbing contractor who installed the line. You can identify the plumbing contractor by checking the record of building permits issued for your residence. A licensed plumber can, at the same time, check to see if your home’s plumbing contains lead solder, lead pipes, or pipe fittings that contain lead.
- Have an electrician check your wiring. If grounding wires from the electrical system are attached to your pipes, corrosion may be greater. Check with a licensed electrician or your local electrical code to determine if your wiring can be grounded elsewhere. DO NOT attempt to change the wiring yourself, because improper grounding can cause electrical shock and fire hazards.
You may have questions about lead in drinking water as a result of the water quality crisis in Flint, Michigan. Although public officials continue to investigate what went wrong in Flint, several factors contributed to the problem:
- The City of Flint has a high number of lead service lines in its water system.
- The City switched from a treated supply of water to an untreated and corrosive supply. The lack of required corrosion treatment caused lead from service lines to get into the water.
- The City was not completely following the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule.
- The City did not respond quickly to water quality concerns.
Washington Water is compliant with health and safety codes mandating use of lead-free materials in water system replacements, repairs, and new installations. We have no known lead service lines in our systems. We test and treat (if necessary) water sources to ensure that the water delivered to customer meters meets water quality standards and is not corrosive toward plumbing materials.
The water we deliver to your home meets lead standards, but what about your home’s plumbing? In Washington state, lead in drinking water comes primarily from materials and components used for in-home plumbing (for example, lead solder used to join copper plumbing, and brass and other lead-containing fixtures). Therefore, the Lead and Copper Rule is a critical part of our water quality monitoring program, and we follow it completely. This rule requires us to test water inside a representative number of homes that have plumbing most likely to contain lead and/or lead solder. This test, along with other water quality testing, tells us if the water is corrosive enough to cause lead from home plumbing to leach into the water. If the Action Level* is exceeded, either at a customer’s home or systemwide, we work with the customer to investigate the issue. If the problem is systemwide, we will implement corrosion control treatment at the source before the lead levels create a health issue.
As the crisis in Flint has made clear, if present, elevated levels of lead can cause serious health problems, especially for pregnant women and children. If your home’s plumbing contains lead piping or pipe fittings, lead solder, or brass fixtures that may contain lead, you can minimize the potential for lead exposure by flushing your tap for 30 seconds to two minutes before using water for drinking or cooking.
The only way to know the amount of lead in your household water is to have your water tested. Many certified labs in Washington perform these tests for $20 to $40 per test. Information on lead in drinking water, testing methods, and steps you can take to minimize exposure is also available on the WA DOH, EPA, CDC, and Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department web sites.
Results of our lead monitoring program, conducted in accordance with the Lead and Copper Rule, can be found in Table 2 of your system’s annual water quality report.
*The Action Level is the concentration of a contaminant which, when exceeded, triggers action which a water system must follow before it becomes a health concern.