You probably know that lead can be harmful to your health. Just how harmful depends on how much lead gets into your body and stays there. Lead can come from a number of places: old paint, contaminated soil and, to a lesser but still significant degree, drinking water. Knowing how lead gets into your tap water - and what you can do to get it out - will reduce the health risks to you and your family.

What are the Health Effects of Lead?

Too much lead in the body can cause serious damage to the brain, kidneys, nervous system and red blood cells. Infants and young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning. Even at low levels, it can affect a child's physical development and ability to learn.

Where does Lead Come from?

Lead occurs naturally in many places, but usually not in more than trace amounts. In other words, there may be some lead in the reservoir, river or well that supplies your drinking water, but not at high enough levels to be considered a threat to your health.

On the other hand, the network of pipes and indoor plumbing through which that water travels - even the faucet itself - may contain lead, or have been connected with lead fittings or solder. If so, your tap water can contain harmful levels of lead.

Should you be concerned? That depends, in part, on where you live. In some communities, water distribution lines still have lead service connections. And, if the water in your community is especially acidic or "soft," it can be very corrosive. The more corrosive it is, the more lead it can dissolve as it stands in pipes.

What Can You Do?

Check with your local water department to see whether the service connection to your building contains lead.

The age of your home will tell you a lot too. Homes built before 1940 may have lead pipes. And lead solder was used to join copper pipes until Massachusetts banned it at the beginning of 1986. If you aren't sure about the pipes in your home and want to know more about them, have a plumber inspect them.

If your pipes are made of lead, they should be replaced as soon as possible. If you have copper pipes joined with lead solder, it's a good idea to routinely flush the plumbing in your home before taking a drink. That's because water standing unused for as little as six hours in pipes joined with lead solder can contain harmful levels of lead.

But the news isn't all bad. Lead solder poses a decreasing risk over time. As the years go by, a coating builds up inside pipes and prevents standing water from dissolving lead connections. In many cases, pipes that are more than five years old no longer pose a problem.

Whether or not you have had your water tested for lead, there are a few simple changes you can make in your habits to protect yourself and your family:

  • In the morning, run the faucet where you normally take your first drink or fill up your coffee pot until the water turns as cold as it's going to get. This flushes out the water that has been standing in your pipes overnight. If no one is home and using water during the day, do the same thing in the evening.
  • Always used cold tap water for cooking, drinking and preparing baby formula or foods. Hot water dissolves metals faster.
  • At the day's end, fill a jug with drinking water for later use.
  • Have an electrician check your wiring. Corrosion within your plumbing may be greater when grounding wires from your home's electrical system are attached.

What About Treatment Devices?

Be careful if you're thinking about buying a home water treatment device for lead removal. While there are units listed by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) as effective at removing lead, Massachusetts law requires that they be approved by the Board of State Examiners and Gasfitters and installed by a licensed plumber. Once in place, these units must be maintained. And, the only way to ensure they're still getting the lead out is to have your water tested from time to time. This can get expensive.

Your best defense against lead in drinking water is knowledge. Learn as much as you can about the pipes leading to your house and the plumbing that runs to your faucets. Then, if necessary, routinely flush out water that may contain lead. It's simple to do and your good health, as well as your family's, may depend on it.

Where Can You Get More Information?

MassDEP has available a list of laboratories certified by the state of Massachusetts to test for lead in tap water. Contact:

MassDEP Drinking Water Program
One Winter Street
Boston, MA 02108

For general information on lead poisoning in children, contact:

Massachusetts Department of Public Health
Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program
305 South Street
Jamaica Plain, MA 02130