Vol 5. 2012 – Reducing Lead In Drinking Water
With “green” buildings focusing on the health of its inhabitants, although not a typical “green” building topic, we felt it was time for us to address the issue of lead reduction in drinking water.
History of lead in plumbing
Plumbing and lead, have shared a long history together. Plumbing was first derived from the Latin word for lead, “plumbum”, which is also commonly identified on the periodic table of elements for lead as “Pb”.[i] Lead was used in the first plumbing systems, dating back thousands of years to ancient Rome. Plumbing and lead have played a crucial role in the development of water systems and our cities’ infrastructures.
Use of lead
Lead is a toxic metal and a common element found in the Earth’s crust, and it is reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the fifth most important metal in the U.S. economy by consumption. Approximately 85% of primary lead is produced domestically in the United States; in Missouri, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Montana and Texas.[ii]
The health effects of lead
When the “Safe drinking water act” of 1974 was introduced, U.S. Congress required the EPA to determine safe levels of chemicals in drinking water, based solely on possible health risks and exposures, called Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLG). The EPA estimated that 10 to 20 percent of human exposure to lead may come from lead in drinking water.[iv]
Since lead contamination often occurs from the corrosion of lead plumbing fixtures or lead pipes, and not from source water, it is a challenging contaminate to detect. EPA has set an MCLG for lead at zero, with an action level at 15 parts per billion (ppb), as they believe it is the “lowest level which water systems can reasonably be required to control this contaminant”.
The adverse effects of lead when exposed over a short period of time above the declared action levels can include “interference with red blood cell chemistry, delays in normal physical and mental development in babies and young children, slight deficits in the attention span, hearing, and learning abilities of children, and slight increases in the blood pressure of some adults”. Long term exposure can increase the risk of stroke and kidney disease, and even cancer.[v]
Current sources of trace lead
Currently, lead is sometimes used in household plumbing products or water pipe lines which deliver water to the home or non-residential building. Some major cities in the U.S. still utilize 100 percent lead piping in their water systems, with nearly all homes built prior to the 1980s using lead solders to connect copper piping. These aging infrastructures are the main contributors of trace amounts of lead in today’s water supplies.[vi]
Although the “Safe drinking water act” of 1974 had mandated “lead-free” plumbing, the term was in essence a basic reduction in lead content; no more than 0.2 percent lead in solders and flux, and no more than 8 percent in pipes and fittings.[vii]
The “Reduction of lead in drinking water act” of 2011
The newly signed “Reduction of lead in drinking water Act” of 2011, aims to redefine “lead-free”, by imposing a maximum “weighted average of 0.25% lead when used with respect to the wetted surfaces of pipes and pipe and plumbing fittings and fixtures”, set to take effect January 4th, 2014.[viii]
What it mandates
This act makes it illegal to “introduce into commerce or install any potable water product that does not comply”. However, the use or sale of lead pipes, solder, and flux in pipes or plumbing fittings or fixtures used exclusively for non-potable services, such as manufacturing, irrigation, or other uses not associated with human consumption, are exempt from the “lead-free” requirements.
Implications of the new act
The act makes it illegal to sell or install products which do not conform to the new “lead-free” standards, enforced by local states or municipal utilities. Failure to comply with these code changes can result in lawsuits, fines, or the replacement of non-compliant products.
Removing lead from our water systems is a daunting, long term task, estimated by the EPA to take more than 20 years to achieve, costing approximately $276.8 billion.[ix] However, with stringent measures in place, the reduction of harmful toxins is progressing steadily, but at no small impact on the related industries. States such as California, Maryland and Vermont have already enacted the “Reduction of lead in drinking water act” since as early as January 1st 2010. To continue this process of harm reduction, and to ease the transition to the new “lead-free” standards, it requires the awareness and due diligence of both the public and professionals alike.
In 2006, the American Waterworks Association Research Foundation (AWWARF) found that faucet lead levels in the U.S. leach “less than 2 parts per billion”, far below the allowable 15 parts per billion established in the “Safe drinking water act”. However, EPA officials have previously addressed Plumbing Manufacturers International (PMI), as they have reasons to believe that faucets are being imported into the U.S. which contains lead in excess of the allowable levels.[x]
As the new “lead-free” legislature imposes tighter regulations, it is important for suppliers, distributors, contractors, engineers, and designers, to only specify high quality products that are certified to meet these new “lead-free” standards.
Some companies have now devoted enormous resources to retool their operations, secure new suppliers, and expand their production capabilities to help meet these new standards. These product brands also certify their “lead-free” products to ANSI/NSF 372 requirements.[xi]
Identifying “lead-free” products
To aid in quickly identifying these new “lead-free” products, manufacturers have implemented various initiatives, such as new product number prefixes, product markings, or product labels, bags and tags.
Tips on transitioning to “lead-free”
- Determine all products specified are “lead-free” and that they comply with the state’s deadlines
- Check to see if products are verified by an independent source, such as NSF
- Update product specifications, and determine which may already comply or do not comply with the new standards
- Check dimensions or specifications of new “lead-free” models, to ensure it will not affect your specifications
- Secure a reliable distributor for “lead-free” products
- Update inventory or purchasing systems with new models if necessary
Availability & cost
With manufacturers ramping up production of “lead-free” products, the price difference between standard and “lead-free” models are slim. Some manufacturers have also compiled “lead-free” product catalogues, making it easier to identify and order their “lead-free” products.
To fully realize the potential of a “green” building, all aspects which may impact the building’s inhabitants must be considered, beyond just water and energy savings. With the new “lead-free” standards set to take effect on January 4th 2014, it is crucial to quickly understand and adapt to these regulations in order to avoid future complications. Plan accordingly as soon as possible, to ensure that you specify, sell, or install quality products which have been certified to meet these new standards, in order to remain competitive, minimize liability, callbacks, and health risks.
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