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Lead in Drinking Water

National events about lead exposure have generated new concerns for Pennsylvanians related to the safety of their homes and water. The Wolf Administration takes the issue of lead exposure very seriously and state agencies will continue to work together on their coordinated response to address lead exposure in communities across the commonwealth. The Departments of Health (DOH) and Environmental Protection (DEP) both work diligently to protect children from lead exposure and have many resources available for residents to learn more and take action on lead.

According to Department of Health, the primary source of childhood lead poisoning in Pennsylvania continues to be exposure to aging, deteriorating lead-based paint (chips and dust), and not drinking water. The age of Pennsylvania's housing stock contributes to this problem. While lead was banned from paint in 1978, many older dwellings still contain layers of pre-1978 paint. According to 2010 Census data, Pennsylvania ranks third in the nation for having the most housing units identified as having been built before 1950 (when lead was more prevalent) and fourth in the nation for housing units identified as having been built before 1978, according to a 2014 Department of Health report.

"The Department of Health is very concerned about elevated lead levels in children wherever they may occur. Our community health nurses work closely with health care providers and families every day to provide education about lead exposure and facilitate home inspections if needed to identify the source of the exposure," said Health Secretary Dr. Karen Murphy.

"Protecting the state's water and the health and safety of our citizens is DEP's mission," said Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Quigley. "Ensuring the safety of our drinking water is essential. We have policies and programs in place already to protect Pennsylvanians."

Federal and state regulations require that public drinking water suppliers regularly test for contaminants such as lead.  DEP monitors water suppliers to ensure that they are complying with testing requirements to safeguard our public drinking water supplies.  DEP also provides information to private well water users on how to properly maintain their systems to reduce their exposure to lead. 

Pennsylvania's Lead and Copper Rule
The purpose of the Lead and Copper Rule is to protect public health by minimizing lead and copper levels in drinking water, primarily by making water less corrosive. When water is corrosive, the lead and copper found in plumbing materials can leach into your drinking water.  Pennsylvania's Lead and Copper Rule establishes an action level of 0.015 mg/L for lead and 1.3 mg/L for copper. An action level exceedance is not a violation but can trigger other requirements that include water quality parameter monitoring, corrosion control treatment, source water monitoring/treatment, public education and lead service line replacement. All community water systems (defined as those serving year-round residents) and nontransient noncommunity water systems (defined as those regularly serving the same people at least 6 months per year, such as schools and daycares)  are subject to the Lead and Copper Rule requirements.

What are the health effects of lead?
Lead can cause serious health problems if too much enters your body from drinking water or other sources. It can cause damage to the brain and kidneys, and interfere with the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to all parts of your body. The greatest risk of lead exposure is to infants, young children and pregnant women. Scientists have linked the effects of lead on the brain with lowered IQ in children. Adults with kidney problems and high blood pressure can be affected by low levels of lead more than healthy adults. Lead is stored in the bones, and it can be released later in life. During pregnancy, the child receives lead from the mother's bones, which may affect brain development. If you are concerned about lead exposure, you may want to ask your health care provider about testing children to determine levels of lead in their blood.

What are the sources of lead?
Although most lead exposure occurs when people eat paint chips and inhale lead-contaminated dust, or ingest lead-contaminated residential soil, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 10 to 20 percent of human exposure to lead may come from drinking water. Lead is rarely found in the source of a public water supply such as a river or creek.  Rather, it enters tap water through the corrosion of a home's plumbing materials. Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures and solder.  However, newer homes may also be at risk.  Even legally "lead-free" plumbing may contain up to 8 percent lead. The most common problem is with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures that can leach significant amounts of lead into the water, especially hot water.

What can I do to reduce my exposure to lead in drinking water?
Since lead exposure in drinking water typically comes from your plumbing fixtures and not the source of your water supply, it's important for both public drinking water customers as well as private well water users to follow these tips to reduce your exposure to lead.

  • Run your water to flush out lead. If water hasn't been used for several hours, run water for 15-30 seconds or until it becomes cold or reaches a steady temperature before using it for drinking or cooking. This flushes out any stagnant water in your home plumbing and replaces it with fresh water from the water main in your street.
  • Use cold water for cooking and preparing baby formula. Do not cook with or drink water from the hot water tap; lead dissolves more easily into hot water. Do not use water from the hot water tap to make baby formula.

  • Do not boil water to remove lead. Boiling water will not reduce lead. In fact, lead concentrations will be higher in water that is boiled since some of the water is removed as steam.
  • Test your water for lead. Contact your water system for more information about getting your water tested.  Some water systems may offer to test your water free of charge.  Your water system can also provide information about local laboratories that conduct lead testing. If you're a private well water user, you should contact a DEP-accredited lab for information about water testing.  Here is the link to a listing of DEP-accredited labs.
  • Identify if your plumbing fixtures contain lead. There are lead check swabs that can detect lead on plumbing surfaces such as solder and pipes. These swabs can be purchased at plumbing and home improvement stores.

Where can I get more information about lead and copper levels in my water system?

  • Community water systems are required to deliver an annual water quality report (also called a Consumer Confidence Report) to all customers.  The report contains test results for samples collected during the year.   

  • Sample results are also available on the DEP's website through the Drinking Water Reporting System. Select your county and water supplier to see the most recent lead and copper test results (on the results page, contaminant 1022 is copper, 1030 is lead).

Where can I find more Information about lead?