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Want to know if you might have lead in your home’s pipes and faucets?

Experts tell us that “there is no safe level of lead exposure.” This stuff is just not good for you, especially for developing children and pregnant mothers. The Centers for Disease Control say that even at low levels, lead has been “shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.”

There are several potential sources of lead in your home plumbing that can get into your drinking water:

  • Service line connecting the water main to your house
  • Solder in your plumbing
  • Older brass faucets and valves

To really know what’s going on, it’s a good idea to have your water tested. You can call your drinking water utility or your county health department to find out how to test your water.

One quick trick to see if your water service line might be lead: Scrape it with a screwdriver. If the metal is soft and turns shiny, it's likely lead. Photo: Randall Whitaker

One quick trick to see if your water service line might be lead: Scrape it with a screwdriver. If the metal is soft and turns shiny, it’s likely lead. Photo: Randall Whitaker

Your Service Line

The drinking water service line coming from the water main into your house is usually in the basement.

Or if you don’t have a basement, it would be usually the lowest point in the house—usually in a corner—probably nearest to the road and low to the floor.

  1. The first trick—without even having to touch it or do anything—if you see that the service line is a dark matte gray color, that’s usually a good tip that that is a lead service line.
  2. Next, scrape the service line with a screwdriver, if it is lead, the metal would be soft and turn really shiny.
  3. If your supply line turns a brownish, copper color, that means it is a copper supply line.
  4. Aside from lead or copper, you can also have a plastic or galvanized steel service line coming into your house. If it’s steel, a magnet would stick to it. If it’s lead or copper, a magnet would not stick to it.

One important thing to note: Even if you don’t have a lead service line in the basement, that doesn’t mean your line is lead free. It is possible there could’ve been a partial line replacement, which means part of the line under your yard could still be lead—even if some of it is copper or steel. Or your city might still have lead service lines in place from the water main to the curb. The best thing to do is call your city to see what kind of records it has. And you can get your water tested.

How Old Is the Plumbing in Your Home?

Solder connects pipes in household plumbing. In 1986, the U.S. mandated a lead-free solder for plumbing, so the age of your house and knowledge of when the plumbing was installed can help you. 

If your house was built before 1986, your plumbing may have lead solder. Scrape the solder to see if it has that shiny color.

I have an older house. It was built in 1910. The plumbing was updated at some point since I have copper lines running throughout the house. The solder that was used to hold the copper joints together probably has some lead in it.

There’s no way to know for sure by doing that scrape test on solder, but it’s more than likely that the solder used in my home is what’s called “50/50 solder.” That’s 50 percent lead, 50 percent tin.

Other types of plumbing you might find in your house include galvanized steel pipes and plastic water pipes. Neither contain lead, but older galvanized steel pipes can corrode, and these corroded areas can be places where lead leaching from a lead service line can gather.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Don’t Forget to Check Your Faucets

A lot of faucets and valves in homes have brass in them. Not all of them do—some faucets and valves can be made of plastic, steel or ceramic. But brass is still widely used.

Brass is an alloy made mostly of copper and zinc. But when they made these faucets and valves from the late 1970s to 2014, the brass could also have up to 8 percent lead in it.

Companies added lead to the brass alloy to help with the manufacturing process and to improve the reliability of valves.

On January 4, 2014, all faucets and valves that came into contact with drinking water had to meet a stricter standard mandated by a new law. From that point forward, the standard dropped to 0.25 percent lead allowed for “the wetted surface” of brass in drinking water faucets and valves. Manufacturers started adding other elements—like bismuth, silicon and sulfur—to replace the lead in brass alloys.

The law does not cover valves and faucets not typically used for drinking water, such as valves for showers and toilets.

If You Find Lead, What’s Next?

The plumbers and experts I talked to say you have less to worry about if you’re on a public drinking water supply and the drinking water operator has maintained what they call “corrosion control” in the system. When this is done, drinking water pipes and brass faucets and valves can have a coating of minerals and other deposits on them that keep the lead from leaching into the system. This is what Flint, Michigan lacked, and it’s why the lead problem got so bad there.

But even with this coating, lead can still turn up in your drinking water. It can happen with brass faucets when the water sits unused for longer periods of time.

To really know what’s going on, it’s a good idea to have your water tested. You can call your drinking water utility or your county health department to find out how to test your water.

If you suspect you have lead in your plumbing, here are some other precautions you can take:

1) Flush the water. This is especially a good idea if you know the water has been sitting in your plumbing for six hours or more. The more the water runs, the less time it has to come into contact with any lead in your plumbing. To flush water from a faucet that might have lead, let the water run for 30 seconds or so. If you suspect you have lead solder or a lead service line, flush it until it becomes colder.

This is especially a good idea if you know the water has been sitting in your plumbing for six hours or more. The more the water runs, the less time it has to come into contact with any lead in your plumbing.

Here’s what the Great Lakes Water Authority recommends:

“The amount of time you should run the cold water to flush your internal plumbing depends on whether you have a lead service line, the length of the lead service line and amount of plumbing in your home. Running your cold water until it feels noticeably colder will indicate the water is from outside your premises’ plumbing. Once that has occurred, flush an additional 1 to 2 minutes to ensure you are receiving water from the water main and not your service line. Note: At one gallon per minute, a 2-minute flush for a 50-foot service line is the recommended standard.”

2) Replacing plumbing components. Replacing faucets is a less expensive proposition than replacing all of your plumbing or your water service line. But if you’re concerned, and water tests show there might be a problem, it’s worth considering.

3) Buy a water filter to attach to your faucet where you get your drinking water. Filters have been shown to be very effective at removing lead. Look for filters certified to do so. You can also consider other water purifying devices such as reverse osmosis systems.

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This story comes from our partners at Michigan Radio's Environment Report, a program exploring the relationship between the natural world and the everyday lives of people in Michigan. Reporting by Mark Brush and Rebecca Williams. This story was originally published on August 26, 2016.