How lead gets into tap water, what you should know about this issue, and what the state is doing about it.
How can lead get into my water?
Lead can leach into tap water if the service line that connects your home to the water main in the street is made of lead. The pipes that carry water in the street are usually made of iron or steel, and do not add lead to your water. More information about lead service lines is below.
- Lead primarily enters drinking water through plumbing materials and service lines. Source waters are rarely the cause of elevated lead levels in finished drinking water.
- Corrosive (e.g., low pH or acidic) water can result in the leaching of lead from service lines and plumbing materials into drinking water.
Lead can also get into tap water if:
- You have lead pipes in your home.
- You have lead solder on pipes or brass fixtures in your home.
Lead solder was banned in 1989. Homes built before then will likely contain lead soldered pipes. Corrosion or wearing-away of lead-based materials can add lead to tap water, especially if water sits in the pipes for a long time before use. Information about reducing your potential exposure to lead is further down this page.
About Lead Service Lines
The service line is the pipe that connects your house to the water main in the street. Some service lines that run from older homes (usually those built before 1940) to the utility water main are lead. Many of these older service lines have been replaced, but your home could still have one.
To determine if your home has a lead service line you or your plumber need to inspect the service line. Lead service lines are generally a dull gray color and are very soft. You can identify them by carefully scratching with a key. On a lead pipe, the area you've scratched will turn a bright silver color. Do not use a knife or other sharp instrument, and take care not to puncture a hole in the pipe.
Lead Service Line Replacement
Homeowners and the local water department usually share ownership of the service line. The homeowner owns the section of the pipe that is under the homeowner's property. The water department and the homeowner must work together to replace lead service lines.
The actual cost of service line replacement reflects several factors:
- the length of the service line
- the technique used to install the new service line
- location of the service line.
Please contact your local public water supplier to learn more about options for service line replacement, including possible financial aid.
If a pregnant woman or child lives in your home, replacing the entire service line can be an important way to reduce the risk of lead exposure.
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Lead and your health
Important Information about the Health Risks of Lead
Lead can cause serious health problems if too much enters your body from drinking water or other sources. Overexposure to lead may cause problems ranging from stomach distress to brain damage. It can cause damage to the kidneys, and can 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. Our bones store lead, and can release it later in life. During pregnancy, the child receives lead from the mother's bones, which may affect brain development.
If you have concerns about exposure to lead, talk to your health care provider about having your or your child's blood tested. A blood level test is the only way to know if you are being exposed to lead.
It is possible that lead levels in your home may be higher than levels in other homes in your community, if your home's plumbing contains lead. If you have concerns about lead levels in your home's water, you may wish to have your water tested.
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How to reduce potential exposure to lead
To reduce your potential exposure, you should always use fresh, cold, running water for drinking and cooking. You should always buy plumbing fixtures that have zero- or low-lead levels. Read the labels of any new plumbing fixtures carefully.
Here are more steps you can take:
- Run tap water until after the water feels cold. Then fill a pitcher with fresh water and place in the refrigerator for future use.
- Never use hot water from the faucet for drinking or cooking, especially when making baby formula or food for infants. Hot water can leach more lead into water than cold.
- Do not boil water to reduce lead. Boiling water will not reduce lead levels. In fact, it will actually increase the concentration of lead due to evaporation during boiling.
- Be careful of places in your home where you may find lead. Some household items such as pottery, makeup, toys, and jewelry may contain lead. Lead paint has been illegal since 1978, but paint, soil, and dust from homes that still have lead paint are the most common source of exposure to lead. So make sure to wash your children's hands and toys often as they come into contact with dirt and dust containing lead.
- Ask your local water department if there are lead service lines leading to your home.
- Call the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (1-800-532-9571) for health information.
- Get your home's water tested at a lab that MassDEP has certified to test household water for lead.
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Testing tap water
The best way to find out if your household tap water contains lead is to get your water tested by a MassDEP-certified lab. Certified labs test water at an affordable cost. Mail-in and drop-off options are available.
MassDEP requires your local water department to test tap water in a sample of homes that are likely to have high lead levels. These are usually homes with lead service lines or lead solder.
The Action Level (AL) for lead is 0.015 milligrams per liter (mg/L), a.k.a. 15 parts per billion (ppb). The AL is compared to the 90th percentile value of all sampling results collected during each monitoring period. (This means that the sample exceeds the action level if more than 10 out of 100 samples taken exceed 15 ppb.) Exceeding the AL is not a violation, but if the 90th percentile value exceeds the lead AL, the water department must take further action. These actions include:
- collecting more water quality data, including a sample of the source water
- conducting public education
- evaluating corrosion control treatment, and installing it if needed.
If corrosion control treatment was in place at the time of the exceedance, then a lead service line replacement program should begin.
Your local water department may already be treating your tap water to make it less corrosive, thereby reducing the leaching of lead into the drinking water. This type of treatment is called corrosion control. You can contact your local water department to find out what is being done to control lead in your tap/drinking water.
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Filtration and bottled water
Running your tap until the water is noticeably colder, after the water has been sitting for several hours, is usually a much cheaper and effective alternative to a filter or bottled water. Some water filtration systems do not remove lead. Before you buy a filter, you should verify the manufacturer's claim. A good resource is the National Sanitation Foundation (1-877-867-3435). If your water has elevated levels of lead after flushing, bottled water is also an option, but it may cost as much as 1,000 times more than tap water.
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Your local board of health has responsibility for regulating private wells. Boards of health may adopt regulations that set criteria for siting, construction, and water quality and quantity.
MassDEP does not test water from private wells. A well owner can contact a certified water-testing laboratory to have the well water tested.
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Lead in Schools
Congress established the Lead Contamination Control Act (LCCA) under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in 1988. The act aims to reduce lead in the drinking water of schools and childcare facilities. It covers both facilities that are on a municipal water supply and facilities that have their own water source (such as a well) and qualify as public water systems.
The Massachusetts program includes both lead and copper, because the same mechanism that leaches lead from plumbing into the drinking water can also leach copper.
Who oversees the Lead Contamination Control Act program?
MassDEP manages the LCCA in Massachusetts. Partners include the US Environmental Protection Agency and these state agencies:
- Department of Public Health
- Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
- Department of Early Education and Care
Other partners include:
- public water systems
- local boards of health
- the Massachusetts Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gas Fitters.
How does the Massachusetts program work?
MassDEP provides information and assistance to schools and Early Education and Care (EEC) facilities. Every five years, MassDEP requests updated information from facility administrators about lead and copper monitoring and remediation efforts. The agency uses this updated information to provide further training and technical assistance. Providing this information to MassDEP is voluntary, but helpful.
MassDEP encourages schools and EEC facilities to establish a sampling plan by identifying and prioritizing sample sites. MassDEP recommends that priority sample sites include:
- drinking fountains - both bubbler and water cooler style
- sinks in kitchens, classrooms, home economics rooms, teachers' lounge, nurse's office, special education classrooms
- any other fixtures known to be sources for consumption.
Find information about the Lead Contamination Control Act below under "Rules & Regulations."
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Rules & Regulations
The Massachusetts Drinking Water Regulations, 310 CMR 22.00
These regulations protect public water supply sources in Massachusetts. They make sure that our drinking water is safe, fit, and pure.
The Lead and Copper Rule
The Lead and Copper Rule is a federal regulation implemented by the US EPA and state environmental agencies. MassDEP administers the Rule in Massachusetts.
- aims to minimize the ingestion of lead and copper through drinking water, by reducing the corrosiveness of finished water.
- applies to all Community and Non-Transient Non-Community Water Systems statewide (approximately 800 systems in Massachusetts).
There is no maximum contaminant level for lead. However, the Rule does establish an Action Level and a corrosion-control Treatment Technique for both lead and copper.
- The Action Level for lead is 0.015 milligrams per liter (mg/L), a.k.a. 15 parts per billion (ppb).
- The Action Level is compared to the 90th percentile value of all sampling results collected during each monitoring period. This means that the Action level is triggered if more than 10 out of 100 samples taken exceed 15 ppb.
- Exceeding the Action Level is not a violation.
- If the 90th percentile value exceeds the lead action level, additional actions are required (further described below):
- Collect additional water quality data, including a sample of the source water
- Conduct public education
- Evaluate corrosion control treatment and install it if needed. If corrosion control treatment was in place at time of exceedance, begin lead line replacements.
Public water suppliers work with MassDEP to develop a sampling plan. This sampling plan is based on an evaluation of materials used in the distribution system and service lines. The sampling plan identifies service locations (single and multi-family residences) that are most likely to have high levels of lead due to the presence of lead service lines, lead interior plumbing, or copper pipes with lead solder.
- The number of samples that need to be collected depends on the population served. For example, a public water system that serves less than 100 people must collect 5 samples, whereas a system that serves over 100,000 people must collect 100 samples.
- The water supplier asks homeowners/occupants to volunteer to collect water samples from taps at the identified service locations (taps must be in regular use, such as kitchen taps); these samples must be analyzed by a state-certified laboratory.
- Water suppliers must provide the test results to all owners and/or occupants of homes and buildings sampled for lead (whether they are above or below the action level).
- Initially, water suppliers must collect one set of samples during two consecutive 6-month periods. If the water supply does not exceed the Action Levels during those two six-month periods, the system is eligible for annual monitoring, rather than semi-annual. Water suppliers on annual monitoring can apply for a waiver to go to a 3-year monitoring schedule if they have 3 annual monitoring periods without exceeding the Action Levels.
If the system exceeds the Action Level:
- The system must go back to semi-annual monitoring until the 90th percentile results are below the Action Level for two consecutive six-month periods.
- The water supplier must take all applicable follow-up actions:
- Collect additional water quality parameters (pH, alkalinity, calcium, conductivity, orthophosphate, silica, and temperature) during the monitoring period in which the lead action level was exceeded - if the water supplier is not already collecting this information. These parameters can help to determine if corrosion control treatment is operating properly or to develop an optimal corrosion control treatment if one isn’t currently in place.
- Submit an optimal corrosion control treatment recommendation to the state if the water suppler has not already done so. Systems serving more than 50,000 customers have all submitted these recommendations.
- Collect a source water lead sample to determine if the source water is contributing to the elevated lead levels.
- Conduct public education to inform all consumers about steps that the water supplier has taken, steps that the consumer should take to protect their health, and to let the consumer know that they may have to replace lead service lines under their control.
- If the system has corrosion control in place and has still exceeded the lead action level, the water supplier must update its material evaluation to identify all lead service lines and goosenecks and replace 7 percent of these service lines within 12 months of the exceedance, and continue this practice until monitoring results no longer exceed the lead action level.
A public water system that has exceeded the Action Level is in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule when the system fulfills all required follow-up actions listed above within the timelines laid out in the Rule. If the system fails to take any of the required follow-up actions, the system has violated the Rule and MassDEP begins enforcement actions.
MassDEP works very closely with US EPA Region 1 on implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act, including implementation of the Lead and Copper Rule. This includes routine reporting of the Rule data to EPA. EPA Region 1 is also working closely with all the New England states to gather additional information and provide assistance and guidance.
The Lead Contamination Control Act
As noted above under the discussion of lead in schools, the Lead Contamination Control Act aims to reduce lead in the drinking water of schools and childcare facilities.
All Community Water Systems are required by Massachusetts Drinking Water Regulations to collect lead and copper samples from at least two schools or early education and care facilities that they serve in each sampling period, when they collect their Lead and Copper Rule samples.
Early education and care facilities with routine plumbing changes are encouraged to collect and analyze additional samples to complete an evaluation of all taps within their facility at least once every three years.
MassDEP also works closely with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Bureau of Environmental Health, which oversees a program that requires blood-lead-level screening for all children between the ages of 9 and 12 months and again between 2 and 3 years. In high-risk communities, children are tested again at age 4. The Bureau of Environmental Health provides a summary of these results.