Getting the Lead Out

In April 2014 the drinking water industry was forever changed when the City of Flint switched the source of their municipal water supply from Detroit Water to the Flint River. That seemingly innocuous change caused lead to dissolve into the drinking water of tens of thousands of Flint residents when managers failed to provide corrosion control measures. The effects of the Flint Water Crisis continue to ripple through cities and towns across America as citizens wonder if the drinking water in their community is safe to use.

A Brief History of Lead Plumbing

Over the years, residential plumbing has evolved with new building standards and advances in material technologies. In the late 1800s, lead was commonly used in residential plumbing. Iron pipes were in use as well and were cheaper than lead, but lead pipes lasted longer and could be bent to ease installation. Health officials suspected and documented the harmful of effects of lead and 1930 marked the beginning of the decline of lead use for most plumbing. It wasn’t until the 1960s though that research fully documented the health risks of lead exposure and by the 1970s researchers were getting the attention of legislators in order to restrict lead exposure. In 1986 Congress banned lead in plumbing.

Lead in Water

Lead monitoring is often misunderstood. The first question most people ask is whether or not lead is in our drinking water. In Charlotte, monitoring has shown for years that lead is not in the drinking water. When it leaves the treatment plant and while it is in the pipe system serving homes and business, drinking water is tested for lead and copper. It’s not there. See our monitoring data here

So how does lead get in drinking water? It dissolves from lead pipes, plumbing fixtures that contain lead and lead solder connecting copper pipes. Plumbing in homes is privately owned. Charlotte Water does not maintain private plumbing and does not regulate private plumbing. So we have to operate the drinking water system as though there may still be lead pipes or lead solder in Charlotte homes.

Under that assumption, Charlotte Water manages the water quality to make the water less likely to dissolve (corrode) lead from private plumbing. One of the methods used to control corrosion is to maintain water pH on the higher side of the scale. Chemically, lead is less likely to dissolve into water that is slightly basic. Another method is to keep fresh water moving through the system. The longer water is in contact with lead materials, the more opportunity lead has to dissolve into drinking water. Utilities across the country use a variety of techniques to control corrosion of metals like lead and copper.

Chances for Plastic Pipes Are Good

Back to our history lesson, lead was on the decline in the 70s and banned by 1986. Seventy-five percent of homes in Mecklenburg County were built after 1980. Sixty percent of homes were built after 1990. The odds are that most homes today don’t have and never had lead pipes or lead solder. Also, pipes have a life span. Anything really old has likely been replaced already. As of January 2014 revisions to the Safe Drinking Water Act made it illegal to install and pipe, or plumbing fitting or fixture, any solder, or any flux, during the installation or repair of a public water system or customer’s drinking water plumbing unless it meets the following definition of “lead-free”:

  • not containing more than 0.2 percent lead when used with respect to solder and flux; and
  • not more than a weighted average of 0.25 percent lead when used with respect to the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures.

Even so, when Charlotte Water crews encounter remnant lead materials in the public water system, they are immediately removed and replaced. Last year, during the course of fixing a water main break, crews found a handful of gooseneck pipes. A gooseneck pipe is a connector pipe about 2’ to 3’ long made of lead.

Because they could be shaped quite easily, gooseneck pipes were used to connect straight service lines to straight water mains.

In a Nutshell

So to recap:

  • No lead in drinking water, if lead is present it’s coming from plumbing.
  • Lead pipes are unlikely.
  • Even if lead pipes are present, Charlotte Water manages corrosion to reduce lead dissolving into water.

Still Not Convinced

There are some things you can do to better understand your specific risk.

  1. Know what year your home was built. If it was after 1986, your risk is almost nothing.
  2. Know when your plumbing was replaced. If it was after 1986, your risk is almost nothing.
  3. Know the material of your pipes including the service line from the meter to your home. Look under the sinks and in the meter box. If it is HDPE, PVC, iron, copper, etc., your risk is almost nothing. Learn more about finding out if you have lead pipes in your home here
  4. Know how long water sits in your plumbing. Keep fresh water in your pipes. Flush taps for a couple of minutes after the water has sat for a few hours. If water is used frequently, your risk is low.
  5. Know the water quality at your home. If you suspect that you have lead plumbing materials, call Charlotte Water at 311 to have your water tested for free.