Is your plumbing contaminating your drinking water?

Suzanne Clemenz | Improvement Center Columnist | October 22, 2012

Homes built after 1986 are likely to have plumbing pipes made from PVC, CPVC, PEX, or perhaps galvanized metal or copper. All of these are an improvement over older lead plumbing and plumbing materials, banned because they can leach lead into a home's drinking (potable) water. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA,) there are some significant health effects from lead in drinking water, including these:

  1. Children under six years old and infants can have delayed mental and physical development.
  2. Some infants and children under six years of age experience slight deficits in their attention span and learning capabilities.
  3. Prolonged adult exposure can create high blood pressure or kidney problems.

Does a home you're buying have lead pipes?

Lead plumbing is often a case of "let the buyer beware." Counties and cities often do not require sellers to bring plumbing up to code. Failure to have an independent home inspection is not only penny-wise, pound-foolish, but can expose your family to health hazards. Before buying, hire an independent lab to test samples from the home's faucets.

Chris Spanngel, owner of Best By Farr Plumbing in Cottonwood, Ariz., says that almost anything that touches drinking water since the mid-1980s is relatively lead-free. He last replaced lead pipes 30 years ago when he was working in Denver's older homes. More recent faucets can be another story.

What inorganic contaminants enter home drinking water?

Ground water is seldom a source of inorganic contaminants. But lead is not the only metal piping that can leach contaminants into drinking water.

  1. Galvanized pipes: Exposure to cadmium from natural deposits, leaching pipe fittings, or older chrome-plated faucets can contaminate water. This can damage kidneys over a period of years.
  2. Copper pipes: If incoming water is below pH6.5, or if lead solder was used to join pipe segments, copper and/or lead can leach into drinking water. For some people, short term exposure to copper creates gastrointestinal distress. People with long-term exposure can suffer liver or kidney damage. People with Wilson's disease can be particularly susceptible.
  3. Solder and PVC joint compounds: Reduced-lead solder and liquid joint compounds are today's standard but may not have been used when your home was built.
  4. Other inorganic (non-biological) drinking water contaminants: In the EPA's list of 16 inorganic contaminants only lead, galvanized metal and copper cite plumbing as a contamination source. Sources of other contaminants include pollution from industry or, more rarely, natural soils. In older neighborhoods the culprit can be the lead pipe between your house and the city water main.

Mitigating plumbing-caused drinking water problems

Your water company's annual quality report or a test of your well can determine if your external source has safe inorganic levels. Testing water from household faucets can determine if contamination is present from interior household plumbing. Remedies are specific to each type of contaminant. Systems range from reverse osmosis to distillation and filtration. Any of them are only as good as your rigorous attention to replacing filters or keeping the system in top working condition.

It is essential that your equipment or treatment system bear the NSF/ANSI Standard 61 certification. That Standard complies with the 2006 California AB1953 law that reduced acceptable lead levels in drinking water from 8% to 0.25%. Systems range from reverse osmosis to distillation and filtration.

Faucets manufactured or installed in the U.S. since 2010 must also meet NSF/ANSI Standard 61 criteria. Delta Faucets' new DIAMOND™ Seal Technology, for example, is a patented internal, integrated ceramic-and-diamond-dust faucet and water line system which claims to truly be 100% lead-free.

Leaching occurs when water sits in your pipes; therefore, follow these precautions with water from the tap:

  1. Always run the water for a while before using it for drinking or cooking.
  2. Use an aerator on faucets and clean out deposits monthly.
  3. Always use cold water for drinking or cooking. Hot water is more likely to cause leaching.
  4. If you've been on vacation, run cold water until it gets colder. Colder water from external pipes is less likely to be contaminated.

Think of new faucets, a treatment system, and a licensed plumber as your partners in protecting your family's health.

About the Author

Suzanne Clemenz designed her passive solar home and remodeled two others. She worked with architects and contractors on floorplans, electrical, painting, windows, flooring installations, flood prevention walls and stonework, major drainage issues, an irrigation system and landscaping.She also completed real estate school.