Lead in drinking water can cause lead poisoning
- Lead poisoning in drinking water usually occurs in the distribution system.
- Several properties of water and its pattern of use affect how much lead contamination results from a particular water distribution system.
Some practical measures can lower the lead content of drinking water and possible lead poisoning.
Lead levels are typically low in ground and surface water, but may increase once the water enters the water distribution system. Contamination of drinking water can occur at five points in or near the residential, school, public, or office plumbing, including: 1) lead connectors (that is, goose necks or pigtails), 2) lead service lines or pipes, 3) lead-soldered joints in copper plumbing throughout the building, 4) lead-containing water fountains and coolers, and 5) lead-containing brass faucets and other fixtures. The 1986 Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments banned the use of lead in public drinking water distribution systems and limited the lead content of brass used for plumbing to 8%.
Several properties of water and its patterns of use affect the extent of lead contamination that results from a particular water delivery system. These factors include: 1) the corrosiveness of water (that is, pH, alkalinity, and mineral content), 2) age of the lead-soldered joints and other lead components (the newer ones often pose a higher risk), 3) quantity and surface area of lead materials, and 4) standing time and temperature of water in contact with leaded surfaces.
Typically, lead pipes are found in residences built before the 1920s, with the oldest cities having the most frequent use of lead pipes. Pipes made of copper and soldered with lead came into general use in the 1950s. Overall, lead leaching from copper pipes with lead- soldered joints represents the major source of water contamination in homes and public facilities such as schools.
In some areas of the United States (for example, Pennsylvania), cisterns are used to store water, especially rain water that may be acidic. Cisterns also can be roof-collection systems, which are common in some island areas (for example, Hawaii). When lead solder is used either in the construction of these cisterns or to repair leaks, or the cistern has a lead liner, the potential for lead contamination of the water is substantial. If the water has a relatively low pH, has low concentrations of cations such as Ca++ or Mg+ + (that is, "soft" water), or has an elevated organic content, the water is probably aggressive in dissolving lead from the cistern. Corrosion control may be effective in reducing water lead levels in the case of corrosive water.
Lead in drinking water is probably absorbed more completely than lead in food. Adults absorb 35%-50% of the lead they drink, and the absorption rate for children may be greater than 60% (ATSDR, 1988).
In general, lead in drinking water is not the predominant source for poisoned children. In some circumstances, however, lead exposures from water are unusually high. Some water cooler-fountains have been found to have lead-soldered or lead-lined tanks. Patterns of intermittent water use from these fountains results in the water standing in the tanks longer than in typical residential situations, which can increase the amount of lead that is leached from the tanks. Several babies have been poisoned when hot tap water, which was then boiled (resulting in concentrating the lead), was used to make baby formula (J. Graef, personal communication).
Practical measures to reduce exposure to lead in drinking water include using fully-flushed water for drinking and cooking and always drawing water for ingestion from the cold water tap. The effectiveness of many point-of-use devices (treatment devices that are installed at the tap) in reducing lead in water varies and may be affected by the location of the device in relation to the lead source and by compliance with manufacturer's use and maintenance instructions. Some, like reverse osmosis and distillation units, may be effective. Carbon, sand, and cartridge filters do not remove lead.
The Environmental Protection Agency regulates the permissible lead content of water.
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