How to Protect Yourself from Lead-Contaminated Water

Residents of cities like Pittsburgh and Newark continue to face high levels of this toxic metal in their drinking water supplies. Here’s what to do if this crisis affects you.

Health experts agree that there is no safe level of exposure to lead. Often making its way into our drinking water supply after leaching from old pipes, the heavy metal can cause serious and irreversible damage to the body—affecting the nervous system, fertility, and cognitive ability, among other functions.

Through the Safe Drinking Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires all community water systems to prepare and deliver an annual water quality report and to take action in the event of lead contamination. Yet some municipalities continue to flout their obligations. A 2016 NRDC analysis indicated that more than 18 million people were being served by 5,363 community water systems that violated the Lead and Copper Rule—and some counties never even reported the troubling data.

In the past year, lead levels in the drinking water of Newark, New Jersey, have been among the highest of any large water system in the United States. NRDC and the Newark Education Workers Caucus (NEW Caucus), an association of educators who teach in Newark’s public schools, are applying pressure on the city, as well as individual city and state officials, to restore a safe drinking water supply. In Pittsburgh, residents have also been dealing with lead contamination for years. Thanks in part to a legal agreement negotiated by Pittsburgh UNITED and others, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is having initial success in treating its water and safely removing existing lead service lines in order to reduce the risk to its customers. But until these crises are fully resolved, residents in Pittsburgh and Newark (or anyplace where lead is an issue) should take these steps to minimize their exposure.

Turning on the Tap in America

Check Out Agency Records

Some cities offer public records that can provide you with valuable information—like the locations of lead service lines or the results of lead testing in different regions’ drinking water. If you live in Pittsburgh, for example, you can check to see whether your service line is made of lead through the utility’s map, bearing in mind that these records are not perfectly accurate. Low-income Pittsburgh residents—designated as those who earn up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line—can receive a free replacement of their private lead service lines by the city. Those who qualify are encouraged to call Dollar Energy Fund (866-762-2348) to begin the process.

Get Your Tap Water Tested for Lead

In Pittsburgh, you can request a free test from the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (call 412-255-8987 or email LeadHelp@pgh2o.com); in Newark, call 973-733-6303 or email waterandsewer@ci.newark.nj.us. Many other cities also offer this service to the public. If you’d prefer independent testing, you can get it done by Healthy Babies Bright Futures, which lets you pay whatever you can afford for the test, or check the EPA website to find a certified lab that can perform the testing. Be sure that the lab you choose asks that you collect multiple samples of your tap water.

When collecting samples from a tap for testing, it’s important that you avoid turning on the water in your home for at least six hours prior to sampling. There may be varying instructions from your city or lab on how to collect the samples, but collecting this “pre-flush” sample is a must.

Use Only Cold Tap Water for Drinking

Warm or hot water is more likely to contain elevated levels of lead. Also, do not boil your drinking water—that can concentrate the lead content.

Follow Instructions for Flushing Before Drinking Water

Residents of some cities, such as Newark, should heed instructions for flushing water from the tap if it hasn’t been turned on for a number of hours. (Newark has produced an educational pamphlet with important information on this step.) Check your city’s website or your water department’s website to determine if there are flushing instructions.

Choose and Maintain Your Water Filter Carefully

Install and use water filters that are certified to remove lead by either the Water Quality Association (WQA) or NSF International (labeled as meeting “NSF/ANSI Standard 53” for lead removal). See this guide for a review of how to pick and operate a filter, and this one for a list of filters that reduce lead levels. Also, be sure to change the filter cartridges regularly, in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.

Maintain Your Faucet Aerators, Too

Remove and clean individual faucet aerators, as lead particles and sediment can collect in the aerator screen.

Protect Growing Bodies

To the extent possible, use only filtered or bottled water to prepare baby formula and food. Children and pregnant or nursing women should also use filtered or bottled water for drinking and cooking. Further, parents should consider having their children tested for lead exposure by a pediatrician or other doctor.

If You Can Afford It, Consider Replacing Your Own Pipes and Fixtures

Determine whether you have any lead-containing pipes and fixtures in your home. A certified plumber should be able to help you if you cannot find this out yourself. Replace any indoor household plumbing that may contain lead. If you do install any new household pipes or fixtures, flush the cold water taps afterward.

That said, here’s an important caveat: If you find that the pipe bringing water to your home from the street—the service line—contains lead, do not remove that pipe. The city should remove and replace the entire length of the lead service line, because replacing only part of it could cause lead levels to increase. For more information about the problem with partial lead service line replacements, see this article.

Call City Officials and Legislators

It’s critical to urge those in charge to fix the problem and keep you informed about their progress. Express your concerns and let officials know your city’s lead levels are unacceptable. Finally, contact your state and federal legislators and urge them to fund future water infrastructure improvement projects.

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