Lead in Plumbing

PMI’s Safe, Responsible Approach

Plumbing Manufacturers International (PMI) represents companies that manufacture plumbing products, which undergo strict safety and performance testing. PMI advocates for safe plumbing and sanitation that protects the public’s health, including reducing lead in water. PMI was a leader in developing and passing the bipartisan Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act. PMI member companies have invested significantly to develop and manufacture products that comply both with lead-in-plumbing laws and with stringent NSF/ANSI 61 requirements, to certify those products, and to continue to meet the evolving needs of consumers.

Governmental agencies that regulate drinking water supplies require product manufacturers that make, sell or distribute water treatment or distribution products in North America to comply with NSF/ANSI 61: Drinking Water System Components – Health Effects. Developed by a team of scientists, industry experts and key industry stakeholders, NSF/ANSI 61 protects public health and safety by setting health effects criteria for plumbing products and devices, as well as for protective barrier materials (cements, paints, coatings), joining and sealing materials (gaskets, adhesives, lubricants), mechanical devices (water meters, valves, filters), pipes and related products (pipe, hose, fittings), process media (filter media, ion exchange resins), and non-metallic potable water materials

Why is Lead Used in Water Pipes and Plumbing?

The answer goes back literally thousands of years to the first plumbing systems, which are named after the word “lead” in Latin, plumbum. Lead piping was used because of its unique ability to resist pinhole leaks, while being soft enough to form into shapes that deliver water efficiently. Lead was used in many other common products as well until scientific advancements in the 20th century demonstrated the element’s toxicity. The plumbing industry voluntarily took significant steps to reduce lead exposure.

Why Lead in Water Is Still a Concern Today

There are a number of reasons why trace amounts of lead can be found in the water supply today:

  • Nearly all homes built before the 1980s still have lead solder connecting copper pipes.
  • Lead still can be found in some interior water pipes and in pipes connecting a home or business to the main water pipe in the street.
  • While lead may still be found in metal water taps, these products must pass rigorous NSF/ANSI 61 testing and certification to assure the lead content is below safety thresholds.
  • Water chemistry also affects lead levels. Water not treated properly for corrosion control may cause lead to leach from leaded plumbing materials into the water. Lead found in tap water typically comes from corrosion of fixtures or from solder connecting the pipes. Lead also can leach into a water supply when water sits in leaded pipes for many hours. Carefully controlled water chemistry prevents dangerous levels of lead from entering the drinking water system from the pipes.
  • Some major U.S. cities still have 100 percent lead piping bringing water from the utilities to homes and businesses. The dissolved oxygen in the water combines with the metal at the surface (copper, zinc or lead) to form a metal oxide. This oxidation layer naturally develops through the decades to coat lead piping and prevent lead from getting into the water supply. When water conditions require it, water utilities also add lime or orthophosphates as a further barrier to prevent lead from getting into drinking water.

Defining “Lead-Free” Fixtures

When a plumbing fixture, such as a kitchen or bathroom faucet, is labeled “lead free,” it can still include a very small amount of lead.

In recent years, several brass alloys have largely replaced the lead in faucets. These materials include bismuth, silicon, selenium, and phosphorous, all of which provide different material properties, depending on the amount used and method of processing.

While none yet effectively duplicates the performance of leaded brass, several types have been employed by some plumbing fitting manufacturers for certain applications.

The Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, which went into effect on January 4, 2014, has reduced the lead content allowed in water systems and plumbing products. The act changed the definition of “lead free” in Section 1417 of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) from not more than 8% lead content to not more than a weighted average of 0.25% lead with respect to the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and plumbing fixtures.

In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued an online guide on certification markings for lead-free products. “How to Identify Lead Free Certification Marks for Drinking Water System & Plumbing Products” includes a summary of the law, its implementation, and a guide for identifying products that are certified as meeting the lead-free requirement of the SDWA.

Eliminating Lead in Service Lines

Many safe water experts advocate for the replacement of lead service lines (LSLs), a task estimated by the EPA in 2016 to cost from $16 billion to $80 billion to eliminate an estimated 6.5 million to 10 million LSLs.

In the meantime, the best protection for the U.S. public is the testing and monitoring of what makes up our drinking water. The amount of lead and other minerals that actually leach into the water is far more critical than how much is used to manufacture the products that come in contact with the drinking water.

Consumers concerned about lead in their drinking water can ask for a copy of their city’s Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), an annual drinking water quality report which lists levels of contaminants found during testing, including lead. Use the EPA’s helpful CCR locator tool to find your city’s report.

What Role Does the ‘Lead and Copper Rule’ Play?

The EPA published a regulation in 1991 to control lead and copper in drinking water known as “the Lead and Copper Rule” (LCR). Revised in 2000 and 2007, the LCR is a treatment technique rule that requires water utilities to conduct tap sampling for lead and copper to determine the actions they must take to reduce exposure to lead and copper.

The LCR mandates that in at least 90 percent of a water supply, lead levels must not exceed 15 parts per billion (ppb) and copper concentrations must not exceed an action level of 1.3 parts per million (ppm).

In December 2015, the EPA received comprehensive recommendations from the National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC) and other concerned stakeholders on potential steps to strengthen the LCR.

In addition, the EPA is taking into account the recent lead in drinking water issues experienced in Flint, Michigan, as well as extensively considering the national experience in implementing the rule.

Currently, the EPA is considering long-term revisions to the LCR to improve public health protection by making substantial changes, including streamlining the rule requirements. To learn more about the types of revisions being reviewed, take a look at the EPA’s October 2016 White Paper on “Lead and Copper Rule Revisions.”

Other Helpful Resources

NSF International’s Lead in Drinking Water Web Page

EPA’s Ground Water and Drinking Water Web Page

Section 1417 of the Safe Drinking Water Act: Prohibition on Use of Lead Pipes, Solder, and Flux