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Lead in Our Drinking Water: Cause for Concern?

The story is an old one. It began long before Flint, Michigan placed it into the national spotlight. 

The story is one of lead pipes, which have been used in plumbing for centuries. Unfortunately, this is a tale that spans across the commonwealth, from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, and that story continues through many small towns across our country today. 

Health Impacts

The science is clear; lead is a neurotoxin that impairs brain development and affects nearly every organ and system in the body. This is of particular concern for children, whose bodies absorb lead more quickly than adults. Children exposed to lead can experience behavior and learning problems, hearing complications, speech delays, anemia and kidney disease. Eighty-five percent or more of infant lead exposure that occurs during the first year of life comes from lead in water, through reconstituted formula.

Fetuses exposed to lead may be born early, have a low birth weight and experience negative health effects throughout their lives. Pregnant women are also especially vulnerable to lead exposure. A mother’s past or present exposure to lead puts the unborn baby at risk. 

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stated, “Even at half the levels previously considered safe, growing evidence shows a child’s exposure to lead can cause irreversible cognitive and behavioral problems,” and called for stricter regulations to protect children from lead poisoning.  


Under the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), water authorities are required to act when their system-wide sampling exceeds 15 ppb (parts per billion) of lead in more than 10 percent of the homes in their sampling pool. This number is not linked to any health protection standard. 

When municipal authorities exceed the action level, they quickly begin to offer free water testing kits. However, there is great variability with testing. A first draw sample may indicate five ppb one morning, while the next day it could indicate 50 ppb. If a resident’s lead testing result indicates a number below 15 ppb, they should not conclude that they are “safe” from lead in water. The AAP urges legal requirements to ensure water fountains in schools do not exceed water lead concentrations of more than one part per billion.

Lead can be found in plumbing fixtures, fittings and solder. Until 2014, brass faucets advertised as lead-free could contain up to eight percent lead by weight. There is the potential of lead present all along the water’s path, from street to faucet.

Navigating the Path

When local water authorities exceed the action level based on sampling, the LCR dictates that they must replace at least seven percent of the initial number of lead service lines in their distribution system annually. The LCR has created an invisible line, delineating ownership of the “public” side (water authority) versus the “private” side (homeowner) from curb to tap. 

Water authorities will replace their public side of the lead service line, which is referred to as a partial line replacement. The homeowner must then decide whether it is financially feasible to replace her/his “private” portion of the lead service line. 

This invisible line has nothing to do with protecting public health, which must be our first priority. Partial line replacements have been proven to increase the amount of lead exposure in drinking water. For cities that have conducted partial line replacements, the data shows this increased lead exposure may occur for days, months, and in some cases, years, due to physical and chemical disturbance.

Local Action

Many organizations across the commonwealth are working to address the lead in water crisis. Some are established environmental and health nonprofits, while others are community-based groups that formed in response to inaction and have led citizen-science initiatives. 

Both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have created loan programs for residents who wish to replace their lead service lines, while both cities have embarked on education and outreach programs, and both are trying to identify where the lead service lines are located. One thing is clear: this is a problem that needs short-term strategies, long-term solutions, and a vision for a healthier community. 

Our story will be complete when prevention is the priority and science guides all decision-making.

Next Steps

What you can do to protect yourself from lead exposure in drinking water:  

  • Investigate your pipes to determine if you have a lead service line and test your drinking water for lead by contacting your local water authority. 
  • If testing is not available in your community, contact an accredited laboratory (click here for a list) to request a test kit. 
  • Filter your water with an NSF-certified system (water pitcher, faucet mount, or counter top unit that connects to your faucet). Home Depot and Target carry the PUR Faucet mounts and Zero Water pitchers; both remove lead from drinking water.
  • Use a certified filter before you use water to prepare food and infant formula.
  • Check your water filter cartridge and change it regularly. Clean aerators in all faucets weekly by rinsing the screen.
  • Never boil water or use hot tap water to get rid of lead. Boiling evaporates some water, increasing the concentration of lead in the water.
  • If you are concerned about lead exposure, ask your pediatrician to have your child’s blood lead level tested. Early intervention has proven effective and is critical if lead levels are elevated.
  • Advocate for policy change at the local, state and federal level, such as required testing for lead in drinking water in schools and early learning centers and banning partial line replacements. 

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