Collectively, the water-systems industry has been working to reduce dangerous lead in drinking water for more than 50 years. It might be shocking to hear that we still have nearly 10 million lead pipes carrying water into homes across the United States. Until 1986, lead piping was extremely common in the installation of home service lines—and these lines are the target of recent legislation aimed at further reducing lead levels in drinking water.
But here is what water-treatment professionals need to tell homeowners: While new standards will create safer drinking water in the long term, the changes present short-term risks of increased lead in home drinking water. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), lead is a toxic metal that can cause a host of dire health issues in humans, so these risks make an in-home, point-of-use (POU) water filtration system more valuable than ever.
A History of Safe Drinking Water Regulations
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was passed in 1974 and has been continually updated and amended over the last 50 years. One of the most notable changes was the addition of the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) in 1991. Arguably the most important standard governing the 68,000 public water systems nationwide, the LCR set the maximum allowable lead level at 15 parts per billion (ppb), which was later reduced to 10 ppb.
In 2019, we saw the biggest change to the SDWA in three decades: The maximum allowable lead level in filtered water was reduced from 10 ppb to 5 ppb. In 2023, the EPA released Proposed Lead and Copper Rule Improvements that require cities to create a publicly available inventory of remaining lead service lines by October 2024. Starting in October 2024, cities must also test the water in all homes, day cares, and schools. Cities must make a goal-based remediation plan for all homes with lead levels above 10 ppb—and must have accelerated remediation plans for all homes with lead levels above 15 ppb.
Not surprisingly, the combination of lower allowable lead levels and increased public reporting requirements have fast-tracked efforts to replace lead service lines across the country. Chicago, for example, has hundreds of thousands of lead service lines to replace and expects the process to take 10 to 15 years. The city of New York has opted to institute its own higher standards for drinking-water safety, including the mitigation of PFAS and other contaminants, in addition to lead. The problem is particularly acute in Florida, which leads the nation with an estimated 1.16 million lead service pipes.
Partial Replacement Increases Lead Levels in Drinking Water
The new regulations will undoubtedly bring significant risk reduction in the long term. But there are big challenges upfront. One issue is that public water systems can replace only the public side of the home service lines, from the water main to the curb stop or property line.
This partial replacement of the lead service lines has been shown to increase the amount of lead in the drinking water in the weeks and months following the partial replacement. Digging, cutting, and other disturbances to the old lead service lines typically release particulate lead, which has a very high lead content, into the water supply. The new materials in the replacement lines can increase corrosion in the remaining section of lead pipe, increasing the lead in drinking water.
Cities know this is a problem. The city of Chicago, for example, has committed to providing a pitcher filter POU device with an NSF 53 lead claim and filters for six months to all homeowners following a partial or full service-line replacement.
But this kind of extra remediation is not federally mandated and is not—and will not—be the case in most cities and states. Moreover, how can homeowners be sure that the risk of increased lead levels has passed after six months? And do they want to take a chance without being certain and trust that the drinking water is safe?
Private Service Lines Remain a Problem
A second major challenge is that private citizens are ultimately responsible for the cost of replacing the private side of the home water service line.
Unfortunately, replacing a private service line can cost a homeowner anywhere from $3,000 to $11,000 or more. In other words, proactive replacement is going to be cost prohibitive for many homeowners. And those who elect to replace their service lines may find themselves with the same risk of short-term increases in lead levels in their home drinking water.
The plumbing inside homes built before 1986 can also contain lead in solder joints and other materials, so even if all the service lines are replaced, there is still a risk of lead getting into the water from the pipes inside the home.
The Role of Home POU Filtration in Safe Drinking Water
Millions of homeowners already count on POU water filtration systems to protect their drinking water and eliminate harmful contaminants. But those POU systems become even more valuable and broadly relevant as new regulations shine the spotlight of public awareness on the problem of lead service lines contaminating home drinking water.
Homeowners don’t have control over if or when their public water system carries out a partial service line replacement. A program like Chicago’s distribution of water pitchers is not available everywhere, and, more importantly, water pitchers are a stopgap approach to a much bigger and broader problem.
Many people have a water filter in their refrigerator and think they are protected from drinking-water contaminants, but standard refrigerator filters do not remove lead from their drinking water. Luckily, a POU water filtration system that uses advanced reverse-osmosis filtration can remove over 99 percent of lead and other harmful contaminants from home drinking water. This is a permanent solution that can deliver homeowners peace of mind—no matter what happens with regulations, replacements, etc.
Tankless Technology Makes POU Filtration More Attractive
Another factor making home POU water filtration more valuable is the technology innovations that have eliminated many of the barriers or concerns that kept homeowners on the fence about installing a system.
The biggest innovation is tankless design. A tankless POU water filtration system gives homeowners a constant stream of pure, great-tasting water the second they turn on the tap—no more waiting for a tank to fill. The tankless design also enables a system to fit neatly under even the most compact sinks, giving homeowners more counter space and changing how water filtration systems can fit into home design.
Give Homeowners Priceless Peace of Mind
Everyone deserves a reliable supply of safe, healthy drinking water at home. Major regulatory changes are pushing us further in the right direction, but one of the most immediate and effective ways that homeowners can protect themselves is by installing a home water filtration system.
As you talk with homeowners, make sure they understand the persistent risk of lead in home drinking water. Show them why innovative POU filtration technology is the easier route to priceless peace of mind every time they turn on their tap.
Keith Johnson, vice president of product management at EcoWater Systems, has been a vital part of the company for 23 years. Educated at the University of St. Thomas and the University of Wisconsin-Stout, he is a recognized expert in water treatment. Johnson has significantly contributed to EcoWater, a leading water-treatment manufacturer, with his extensive experience in sales, marketing, e-commerce, and product management.
About the company
Founded in 1925, EcoWater Systems (a Marmon, Berkshire Hathaway company) is one of the largest manufacturers of home water treatment systems. The company offers a wide range of water-treatment products to enhance life’s most precious resource and deliver your water, perfected. EcoWater solutions are sold under the EcoWater name through an extensive international dealer network. For more information, visit www.ecowater.com.