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. Recent NRDC research showed that 186 million people in the country—a staggering 56 percent of our population—drank water from systems with lead levels exceeding that recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics to protect children.
In 2018 and 2019, lead levels in the drinking water of Newark, New Jersey, were 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, brought a lawsuit against the city and subsequently settled, garnering national attention. In early 2022, the city announced it had finished replacing all 23,000 lead pipes, a project originally expected to take a decade. Meanwhile 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 city will remove its lead water pipes by 2026; in the meantime, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is expanding its free tap-water filter program in order to reduce the risk to its customers. But until these crises are fully resolved, residents in any city where lead is an issue should take these steps to minimize their exposure.
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 email@example.com. 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 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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