By Shukri Elmazi
The citywide water crisis in Flint, MI has caused many homeowners to question the amount of lead in their residential water supply. According to US EPA, between 10 and 20 percent of lead exposure comes from contaminated water. What’s more, babies can receive between 40 and 60 percent of their lead exposure by drinking formula mixed with contaminated drinking water.
To minimize residential lead exposure, US EPA proposed changes to Section 1417 of the Safe Drinking Water Act based on the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act of 2011. The proposed changes would update the definition of lead-free to lower the maximum amount of lead content allowed in plumbing products from eight to 0.25 percent of the wetted surfaces and create exemptions from these requirements for plumbing products that are used exclusively for non-potable services. To ensure individuals purchasing, installing or inspecting potable water systems can identify lead-free plumbing materials, the agency proposed additional requirements that mandate manufacturers to certify compliance with the lead-free regulations. This ensured products that meet them are differentiated from those that are exempt. US EPA’s proposed regulations would also reduce unintentional use of non-lead-free plumbing products in potable water systems and minimize exposure to lead in drinking water, according to the Office of the Federal Register.
Some manufacturers have retooled the manufacturing process of their residential pump products to meet stringent lead requirements well before US EPA’s proposed regulations were announced. In fact, some products have been engineered with stainless steel since 1994 to ensure they contain less than 0.05-percent lead. As other companies work to update their product lines to adhere to the proposed guidelines in Section 1417 of the Safe Drinking Water Act, plumbing professionals can help homeowners assess if they are at risk for lead exposure. Many residential water systems operate using older plumbing fixtures and copper water lines that may contain lead in the solder used to bond the pipes. This can pass lead into a home’s potable water supply. Follow these five steps to help residents identify if they’re obtaining safe, clean potable water from their plumbing system.
1. Identify lead service lines
When lead gets into tap water, it typically happens right before the water enters the home through a service line. Service lines installed before 1986 commonly contained lead-based solder comprised of 50 percent tin and 50 percent lead. For this reason, it’s critical to identify if the pipe providing water to a residential system is made of plastic, copper, lead or stainless steel. This will help plumbing professionals understand if high volumes of lead are seeping into the water before it enters the home’s service line. To do so, find the water meter located inside or outside of a resident’s home. Then evaluate the material used to construct it. If the pipe is made of plastic, that means it’s likely safe. If it is made of metal, use a key or coin to scratch it and then evaluate the color of the pipe. If the pipe is orange, it’s likely made of copper, which usually indicates a lower lead concentration. If the scratched surface is a dull color, it’s likely made of galvanized steel. If the surface is shiny, lead is most likely the main material used to construct the pump. If the pipe is unable to be located, call the municipality to find out what type of service the home runs on.
2. Conduct a pump system audit
In homes built before 1986, plumbing professionals should thoroughly examine the water system to find potential sources of lead. Start by identifying the materials used to construct the pumps that move water into and throughout the home to ensure they do not contain lead. Then characterize the material used to connect the pumps to the piping. When doing so, look for soldered joints. Solder was commonly used to connect a copper pump system in older homes and often contains lead. Then inspect the fixtures that are installed in the home. Household fixtures in the bathrooms and kitchens may be made of brass or bronze. These materials also contain lead.
3. Test the water
Even if a home does not use a lead service line or contain pumps made with lead, residents can still have unsafe levels of lead in their water supply due to leaching from the faucet, pipes and other fixtures. The only way to ensure homeowners’ water doesn’t contain harmful quantities of lead is to test it. When testing the water, measure the lead content to ensure it meets US EPA regulations. Water professionals should test more than one water sample, because varying amounts of lead may be found in different water supplies. Test water samples that come from all major water sources in the home. This should include but not be limited to water streaming from the kitchen and bathroom sinks and shower. US EPA’s water sampling and analysis procedures call for a first draw and a fully flushed sample. The first-draw sample (taken after at least six hours of no water use from the tap tested) will have the highest level of lead, while the fully flushed sample will indicate the effectiveness of flushing the tap before using the water.
4. Upgrade the system as needed
If all or parts of the residential water system contain unsafe quantities of lead, upgrade as needed with lead-free plumbing products. To further ensure contaminants don’t make their way into a home’s potable water source, install products that are NSF/ANSI 61-G- or NSF/ANSI 372-compliant. This means the product has been tested and evaluated by a third-party testing body to ensure it does not leach contaminants into the water that would be a health concern and it complies with safe potable water regulations.
5. Install residential water treatments
Replacing lead service lines and pumping infrastructure removes lead from the source, but it can be expensive. For this reason, many homeowners elect to have water treatment devices (filters, distillers and RO units) installed in their homes. It’s critical that plumbing and water treatment professionals install water treatment systems that are NSF/ANSI 53- or NSF/ANSI 58-certified. This means the system has been verified to be able to reduce lead to below the US EPA action level of 0.015 mg/L.
It’s important to ensure that homeowners know most residential water treatment systems are comprised of replaceable components that require regular service. Treatment professionals should work with them to schedule appointments at the manufacturer’s recommended times to complete routine maintenance and replace system components as needed.
Shukri Elmazi is a product manager for Xylem Inc. and has worked in Xylem’s Applied Water Systems Unit for 10 years. He has extensive experience in residential product development and systems training. Elmazi holds a Bachelor’s Degree in mechanical engineering from Rochester Institute of Technology.
About the company and products
As a trusted source for residential water needs, Goulds Water Technology is proud to provide American-built plumbing products that meet US EPA’s proposed changes to Section 1417 of the Safe Drinking Water Act and are NSF/ANSI 61- and NSF/ANSI 372-compliant to ensure clean, safe drinking water.