Lead water pipes in your home can taint your drinking water and cause lead poisoning, so replacing fixtures as soon as they're found is essential. Image source: WBUR
If your home was built in the 1980s or earlier, your pipes or your water service line might be made of lead. The corrosion of this material could be leaching toxic particles into your tap water, putting everyone in your home at risk of lead exposure. The only solution to this problem is to examine your pipes, test your water for lead, and replace lead fixtures ASAP.
This is easier said than done, though. You may have to do some digging — literally — to assess your water service line, and only a state-certified lab can properly test the lead levels in your water.
Keep reading, and we'll walk you through every step of this process to ensure you and your family drink clean, lead-free water.
On this page
- How to determine if a pipe is made of lead
- How to find lead pipes in your home
- Homes where lead pipes are common
- The hazards of lead pipes
- What you should do if there are lead pipes in your home
- What you should do if you have a lead service line
- How much it costs to replace your service line
How to determine if a pipe is made of lead
- Check its material and color. If it's a dark gray metal, it's either steel or lead. If it's a lustrous red-brown, it's likely a copper pipe. If it's white plastic, it's PVC.
- If it's gray metal, try to stick a magnet to it. If the magnet sticks, the material is probably steel. Lead is not magnetic, so if your magnet won't stick to a gray metal pipe, it's almost certainly lead.
In addition to examining your service line and pipes this way, you should also examine your home's faucets and any solder between pipes. Lead solder and faucets can still bleed lead particles into your drinking water.
How to find lead pipes in your home
To ensure you're drinking and cooking with untainted tap water, you first have to inspect your plumbing for lead fixtures and components. This means going over every inch of piping in your home.
Be warned: this might require cracking open some drywall and digging in your yard.
Call your water utility company
An exposed water service line connecting a home to the city's water main. Image source: Mercury Insurance
Lead service lines are some of the most common sources of lead in drinking water. These lines connect your home's plumbing to the city's water main. While it's illegal to install new lead service lines, many older homes still have lead lines that were installed when they were first built.
To determine if all or part of your service line is made from lead, call your city's water utility provider. They should have installation records for your home's service line and know if all or part of it is made of lead.
Even if your utility company says your service line isn't made of lead, it may still be worth your time to do some light excavation to expose the line so you can examine it yourself. It's important to note that not all of your service line is owned by your utility company. It's possible that during your home's life, the part of the service line the company owns was replaced while the rest of it wasn't. This could mean that parts of your service line still could be lead.
Examining your pipes, solder, and faucets
After calling your utility company about your service line, you should closely examine every metal component of your home's plumbing system. While it may be tedious, it's the only way to determine if your home has lead pipes.
Start where your water service line connects to your home. This is typically found in a house's basement or the lowest section. It will probably be rising out of the floor, and it will be directly connected to your water meter. Examine this portion of piping, then follow it throughout your home to check every single piece of plumbing you can see.
Testing your water
If you don't want to dig up your yard or aren't confident in your ability to definitively assess your home's plumbing materials, the next step is to get your water tested. However, lead testing can't be done by just any plumber or lab. You need to hire a state-certified lab that specializes in tests like this.
Luckily, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides a list of labs certified to test drinking water in every state. To get your water tested, contact one of the labs near you, send them some water samples, and wait to hear back.
Be aware that this service probably won't be free. Water testing often costs less than $100, but it can cost substantially more in some cases.
Homes where lead pipes are common
The use of lead pipes was common for centuries, and it wasn't until 1986's Safe Drinking Water Act that it became illegal to use lead fixtures in systems that deliver water for human consumption. However, this public health legislation never required that existing lead pipes be removed, so homes built before 1986 may still have lead fixtures.
In short, only older homes or homes on old lots are really at risk. If your home was built more recently than 1986, you probably have nothing to worry about. However, if your home is a renovation or a rebuild on a lot that once held an older home, your service line may still be made of lead.
The hazards of lead pipes
Lead is an incredibly toxic material that can cause many health problems, especially in children and unborn fetuses.
According to the EPA, even low amounts of lead exposure can cause serious issues like "behavior and learning problems" and "slowed growth" in children. Similarly, if a pregnant person ingests lead, the fetus may suffer from reduced growth, malformed bones, and premature birth. Lead ingestion can even result in death in some cases.
Because adults are larger than children, they're slightly less susceptible to the effects of lead, but minimal exposure can still cause hypertension, kidney problems, and reproductive issues in adults. Ultimately, the EPA has determined that no amount of lead exposure is safe for anyone of any age.
All of these health conditions are severe, but luckily they're preventable. By taking the risks of lead exposure seriously and replacing any lead plumbing in your home, you can keep your family safe.
What you should do if there are lead pipes in your home
If you think you and your family have been drinking tap water with any amount of lead, you should first get everyone to a doctor. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people show no symptoms of exposure to lead. This means that even if everyone seems healthy, they may be sick.
Contact a pediatrician to get all your young children tested for lead exposure, and talk with your primary care provider for yourself and every adult in your home. Once they've done their tests, the doctors can help prescribe a treatment plan to rectify the effects of lead exposure.
Next, you should contact a plumber to get every lead fixture replaced ASAP. The only way to solve lead contamination in your tap water is to eliminate the root cause.
Until you replace your lead fixtures, you should completely avoid drinking or cooking with your tap water unless you get a point-of-use water filter that can eliminate lead. Lead removal requires specialized filtration, so don't rely on just any water filter. It's also recommended that you only use cold water from your tap for consumption. Hot tap water tends to pick up more lead particles as it flows than cold water does.
It's also worth noting that boiling tap water won't eliminate lead and make it safe to drink.
To be completely risk-free until all lead fixtures are removed from your home, just drink and cook with bottled water you buy from a store.
What you should do if you have a lead service line
If you discover that all or part of your service line is made of lead, you should contact your water utility provider. Many offer lead service line replacement programs that enable you to get your line replaced for free or cheap.
As we said, your utility provider may not own portions of your service line, so they may not replace all of it. If the provider doesn't replace your entire line for you, ask them for resources and best practices for getting a complete service line replacement in your area.
While waiting for the service line replacement, follow the safety precautions outlined above. Avoid drinking or cooking with unfiltered tap water, only use cold water for consumption, and use bottled water if you can't get your hands on an adequate filter.
How much it costs to replace your service line
As for the portion of your water line that you do own, the cost to replace it can be fairly steep. This plumbing project typically costs US homeowners about $2,892. This is just the average, though, and prices can exceed $10,000 in some cases.
These high costs are the primary reason you should contact your utility company about water main replacement before talking to a plumber. As we said, the company may have a program for cheaply replacing lead service lines for you.
Safely removing your old lead pipes
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, highlighted the dangers of lead in the water supply, so it's valid to be concerned that your home might also have lead fixtures. Rest assured, though, that your home is not at risk if it was built in the last decade or two. However, if your home was built in the 80s or earlier, you should probably examine all your pipes and get your water tested. Better safe than sorry.
If you do find any lead in your home, don't wait. Get it all replaced immediately.