Lead in drinking water: Steps to take as a business owner

James Peale

Lead in drinking water is in the news more and more these days. Just last Wednesday, CNN reported that more than 5,000 drinking water systems in the United States are in violation of the EPA’s lead and copper rule. Closer to home, lead has been detected in some area schools. Many of the detections are associated with drinking water fountains and other fixtures, but pipes and fittings have also been implicated. As a business leader, you might be wondering if you should be concerned with lead in the water that you and your employees drink at work, and even with the water that you drink at home. While lead in drinking water is a cause for concern, a little information goes a long way in providing peace of mind.

Why is this important? When you drink water containing even low levels of lead, it accumulates in your body and can impact neurological development, cardiovascular systems and kidneys. The EPA says there is no safe level of lead in drinking water, since adverse health effects have been observed in people with very low levels of lead in their blood. EPA has therefore established a maximum contaminant level goal of 0 parts per million (ppm).

How can we make sure that people living in buildings we own or manage aren’t drinking lead-laced water? First, look at the source. The EPA requires drinking water suppliers to regularly test for lead and other contaminants, and to provide water quality reports to customers. For larger suppliers (e.g., city of Vancouver, Clark Public Utilities), these reports are easily found online. The reports describe the testing’s analytical results, and whether lead (and other contaminants) were detected. If lead is detected above the action level (15 parts per billion) in greater than 10 percent of tap water samples collected during testing, EPA requires that the water supplier take additional actions including corrosion control, public education and replacement of lead service lines. Fortunately, our water suppliers take their responsibility for providing safe drinking water seriously, and their water testing shows concentrations below the action level. The city of Vancouver’s website also notes that they don’t have any known lead pipe in their distribution system (unlike older systems back east).

Unfortunately, even acceptable lead testing results from the water provider do not guarantee that your tap water does not contain lead. Your plumbing may have “lead-free” components that, well, aren’t. Lead is fairly ubiquitous in our environment, and has been used in plumbing since the Roman Empire. The 1998 Safe Drinking Water Act required that all pipes, fixtures and solder be “lead-free.” However, until 2011, “lead-free” meant that solders and flux not contain more than 0.2 percent lead, while pipes, pipe fittings, fixtures and well pumps not contain more than 8 percent lead. After 2011, “lead-free” was redefined as a weighted average of 0.25 percent calculated across the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings and fixtures, and 0.2 percent for solder and flux, so newer buildings are less likely to have fittings containing higher levels of lead.

To take informed action, you need data, and that means testing your own tap water, in a similar fashion to what many school districts and other institutions have done. Fortunately, it’s fairly simple to collect water samples at the tap and/or drinking fountains, and the analysis is relatively cheap – generally about $30 to $50 per sample. A list of certified labs that perform these tests can be found on the Washington State Department of Ecology’s website at: www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/eap/labs/documents/DWLabs_WAByCounty.pdf

When collecting samples, proper sampling procedures should be followed to ensure quality data (follow any instructions provided by the analytical laboratory). Keep in mind that concentrations will generally be higher when you first turn on the tap. This is because the longer the water sits in the pipes, the more lead and other heavy metals could enter the water. Flushing the pipes lowers the concentrations.

If you proceed with testing, make sure the laboratory provides reporting limits low enough to evaluate your results relative to the EPA action level. If you do find higher levels of lead, don’t panic. You will need to develop a plan to identify potential sources (most likely fixtures), and isolate and replace components as needed.

This edition of Tip of the Week was written by James Peale, principal hydrogeologist at Vancouver-based Maul Foster & Alongi. Peale, RH, LHG, has more than 20 years of experience as a hydrogeologist in the environmental field, and he specializes in identifying, evaluating and implementing innovative and successful solutions for complex technical environmental problems.