How your pipes can affect your drinking water quality
It doesn’t matter if your water comes from the purest glacier, it still needs to get to your tap. And to do that, it has to pass through your building’s pipes, which, depending on their age, can seriously affect water quality.
The biggest concern around plumbing is the continuing existence of lead piping. Though it was decommissioned in 1986, lead remains in a large number of pipes around the country (basically, the majority of places that haven’t had a plumbing reno since that year). The older the hardware gets, the more that certain compounds of water are able to agitate the metal, leaking it into the water supply.
So just how much of a problem is lead piping?
Both the EPA and CDC state that “there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood. Lead is harmful to health, especially for children.” While these agencies single out young, still growing people as at biggest risk when it comes to lead-contamination, we can confidently assume that no one, no matter their age, benefits from any amount of lead in their water!
In fact, the consequences of even small levels of lead contamination can be severe. The consequences of lead poisoning range from kidney damage to reproductive problems including declined fertility. In children, low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.
While real and genuine, these concerns do have to be tempered with the fact that large portions of the country are probably consuming tiny amounts of lead in their water supply, every day. Anywhere with lead faucets, fixtures, pipes in the homes or service lines—even the solder attaching non-lead components together—can be a source of lead in the water. Normally, these potential risks are kept at bay by treating water at source plants, to keep it non-acidic.
As a result, the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) defines “lead-free” as a maximum average of 0.25% lead across pipes, fittings, and fixtures.
The question of how much you should worry about lead piping depends largely on where you live. In regions where the water is highly acidic, alkaline, or is considered hard water that is high in mineral content, there is a much higher chance of lead corrosion. Typically, a pH level of less than 6.5 is considered safe for transporting through lead-containing piping. But the safety of pH levels can be compounded by:
- The amount of lead in plumbing
- Plumbing age and wear
- Water temperature
- How long water stays in pipes
- Protective coatings inside plumbing
If you do live in an area with highly acidic water (where treatment plants can’t be trusted to control for pH), and you suspect you might have pre-1986 plumbing—and especially if you suspect that plumbing to be degrading—it’s definitely worth seeking out a test for lead contamination in your drinking water.
How to deal with lead piping
Beyond requesting an independent water test for your building or home, there are a few simple things you can do to protect against pipes you suspect of leaking lead into your water.
- At the simplest end of things, just running water from your tap for a minute or so before filling your glass will help to flush out any water sitting in the pipes and possibly collecting contaminants. This is especially true in the mornings, or in places where plumbing is rarely used.
- Some water filters will give you more peace of mind when it comes to lead removal, by adding a stage of safe-guarding between your tap and glass. Reverse osmosis or ceramic filters should remove lead or bring levels to near zero. Some activated carbon filters can also perform this role.
However, it’s important to check all for filters for individual certifications. As this consumer reports article lays out, the minimum you should be looking for filter-wise is a certification by the NSF, the WQA, or another certifying agency equivalent to NSF Standard 53.
- When water is heated, it’s far more likely to dissolve lead from pipes and carry through to your faucet. Because of this, it’s recommended that you never use hot water directly from the tap when you’re cooking or making drinks (unlike showering and bathing, which is not considered a safety risk).
How else can pipes affect water quality?
While lead is the main concern for many when it comes to plumbing and water quality, there are a number of other lesser-known contaminants you may want to look out for, depending on your concern for water purity.
Like lead, copper is a historic/traditional piping material that can corrode depending on the age of pipes as well as the acidity of a water source. In some cases, highly acidic water can corrode piping to the extent that exceeds recommended health guidelines. However, it’s thought that copper pollutants will affect the color and taste of water, long before posing a health risk.
Similarly, iron pipes can shed material into a water supply via rusting. As rust builds up, it may begin to block piping, increasing pressure on the water flow and the chance of particles breaking off. Again, however, there’s no significant evidence for small amounts of rust posing a health risk.
If your water has a brown coloration due to iron, here’s how to remove it >
There’s limited evidence on whether PVC and other piping plastics corrode to the extent that they risk health, with the CDC generally assuming that plastic pipes are not susceptible to the electrochemical corrosion seen in metal plumbing. However, at the strictest level of analysis, the level of microplastics in drinking water, and their safety, are still unknown.
Perhaps obviously, there’s a correlation between the age of pipes and the probability of them harboring large bacterial biomes. This can mean various forms of bacteria, algae, and mold.
A 2015 study from the journal PLOS One into the different microbiomes that can form in building systems found that the chemical properties of water are a large determinant of the composition of microbiomes, including the occurrence of pathogens. However, factors under the control of building owners or homeowners with well water, such as filtering and maintenance to reduce water stagnation in the system, have a clear influence on their size and health risk.
In cases where bacteria is left to build up, they may sometimes release into the tap water stream. However, the risk of pathogens will normally be neutralized by chlorination or similar pre-treatment at the water source.