Atomic number 82 on the periodic table, lead is represented by “Pb” in the list of elements. Lead is a soft metal used in construction of buildings, manufacture of weights and various other industrial applications. Humans have been mining and using this heavy metal for thousands of years, poisoning themselves in the process. Although lead poisoning is one of the oldest known environmental hazards, the modern understanding of how small an amount of lead is necessary to cause harm did not come about until the 20th century. Prior to the 1930s, many homes in the U.S. were built using lead pipes. By the late 1960s, leaded gas for American automobiles was being phased out. As recently as 1978, however, lead was still being used as a basic additive in housepaint. No safe threshold for lead exposure has ever been discovered, meaning there is no known amount of lead that is too small to cause the body harm.
Lead interferes with a range of body processes. It is toxic to many organs and tissues including the heart, bones, intestines and kidneys. It interferes with the normal development of the nervous system and therefore is especially toxic to children, causing potentially permanent cognitive and behavior disorders.
Most public water utilities are extremely conscientious in removing lead from your water supply. Still, lead contamination in drinking water continues to be a problem in too many cases. Most of the time, lead contamination occurs after the water has left the treatment plant, because some older homes and water systems may still have some lead piping, or use brass faucets and fittings which contain some lead. On many newer homes, the solder used with copper pipes can contain a very small amount (0.2%) of lead. Acidic water (which has a low pH) is more corrosive , which can lead to a higher concentration of lead in drinking water.
Lead is potentially dangerous, both in high concentrations (acute lead poisoning) and in lower amounts if you are exposed to it over a prolonged period of time (chronic lead poisoning). The Environmental Protection Agency has set the federal action level (the point at which action must be taken to ensure public safety) for lead at 15 parts per billion (ppb). Even with all the extra care taken to prevent lead from entering the public water supply, the EPA estimates that 40 million Americans use water that is over the level of 15 ppb. Because of this, and because there is no known level of lead consumption that can be considered “safe”, it is vital to determine if there is lead in your drinking water, and if so, to take immediate steps to filter out the lead.
There are a few basic measures you can take to reduce your exposure to lead through drinking water. At the very least, the EPA recommends that you let your faucet run for two or three minutes before taking water for drinking or cooking. This allows water that’s been resting on (and accumulating) lead in the pipes to flush itself out. As a further precaution, don’t ever drink hot water straight from the tap, because it contains more lead than cold water; the heat lets lead dissolve more easily. Also, it is important to note that you cannot rid water of lead by boiling it.
If you are uncertain about lead levels in your area’s drinking water supply, be sure to check your Water Quality Report from the local water utility. This report can give you a fairly accurate idea of what contaminants may be present in your tap water. To verify further if your water contains lead or other contaminants, have your water independently examined by buying a home water test kit.
If your water shows significant lead levels, you will ideally want to install a whole house water filter system. In addition, a system installed under your sink will assure you that your drinking and cooking water are not contaminated with lead. The most effective drinking water system for reducing lead levels is a reverse osmosis system, which has an RO membrane to filter out virtually all heavy metal particles.