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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.

Keeping Lead Out of Drinking Water - Pennsylvania's Lead and Copper Rule

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.

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. Water systems are required to sample the water from consumer's homes on a specific frequency, which is either every 6-months, annually or triennially (once every 3 years). An action level exceedance occurs if the results from more than 10% of the homes tested are above the action level. 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.

Lead and Copper Rule Routine Compliance Determination

The results of routine compliance monitoring are regularly reported to the Department. These results are evaluated and the 90th percentile compliance value is calculated. For the 2016 annual and triennial monitoring period, 2,859 water systems were required to monitor during the period from June-September. Of these 2,859 systems, 11 exceeded both the lead and copper action levels, 79 exceeded only the lead action level, and 42 exceeded only the copper action level.

Both the individual results and the compliance values are available on the Drinking Water Reporting System website (with instructions for how to search this data) at: the Safe Drinking Water webpage.

What are the health effects of lead and copper?

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.

Copper can cause adverse health effects, including vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and nausea.

What are the sources of lead and copper?

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 and copper are rarely found in the source of a public water supply such as a river or creek. Rather, they enter 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. Corrosion of copper pipes in homes is the leading source of copper in drinking water.

What can I do to reduce my exposure to lead and copper 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 and copper. 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. For homes with lead service lines, customers may have to flush the line for a longer period, perhaps one minute, before drinking.
  • 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 or copper. Boiling water will not reduce lead or copper. In fact, lead or copper concentrations will be higher in water that is boiled since some of the water is removed as steam.
  • Test your water for lead or copper. 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 (Excel).
  • 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).

What is the PA Lead Ban Act?

Pennsylvania's Plumbing System Lead Ban and Notification Act (PA Lead Ban) became effective on January 6, 1991, and applies to all plumbing construction or repairs done after that date. Pennsylvania's law is similar to the 1986 amendments to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and requires the use of lead-free materials in construction or repair of any public water system (PWS), any facility connected to a PWS, or any plumbing that provides water for human consumption.

For more information, read the annual Lead Ban Surveillance Report (PDF).

Where can I find more information about lead?