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Water: Basic Information about Regulated Drinking Water Contaminants

Basic Information about Lead in Drinking Water

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Lead Rule at a Glance

Action Level for Treatment Technique
in parts per million (ppm)
Lead = 0.015 ppm

Maximum Contaminant Level Goal Lead = 0 ppm

Health Effects
Infants and children: Delays in physical or mental development; children could show slight deficits in attention span and learning abilities.
Adults: Kidney problems; high blood pressure

Sources of contamination
Corrosion of household plumbing systems; erosion of natural deposits.

Chemical Abstract Service Registry Number
7439-92-1

For other contaminants and their MCLs, visit the MCL list page.

For more information on lead:

  • Consumer Information
    (800) 424-LEAD
  • Safe Drinking Water Hotline
    (800) 426-4791
  • Technical Information
    202-554-1404
  • More info on lead

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates lead in drinking water to protect public health. Lead may cause health problems if present in public or private water supplies in amounts greater than the drinking water standard set by EPA.

What is lead?
Lead is a toxic metal that was used for many years in products found in and around homes. Even at low levels, lead may cause a range of health effects including behavioral problems and learning disabilities. Children six years old and under are most at risk because this is when the brain is developing. The primary source of lead exposure for most children is lead-based paint in older homes. Lead in drinking water can add to that exposure.

Uses for lead.
Lead is sometimes used in household plumbing materials or in water service lines used to bring water from the main to the home. A prohibition on lead in plumbing materials has been in effect since 1986. The lead ban, which was included in the 1986 Amendments of the Safe Drinking Water Act, states that only “lead free” pipe, solder, or flux may be used in the installation or repair of (1) public water systems, or (2) any plumbing in a residential or non-residential facility providing water for human consumption, which is connected to a public water system. But even “lead free” plumbing may contain traces of lead. The term “lead free” means that solders and flux may not contain more than 0.2 percent lead, and that pipes and pipe fittings may not contain more than 8.0 percent lead. Faucets and other end use devices must be tested and certified against the ANSI – NSF Standard 61 to be considered lead free.

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What are lead’s health effects?
Infants and children who drink water containing lead in excess of the action level could experience delays in their physical or mental development. Children could show slight deficits in attention span and learning abilities. Adults who drink this water over many years could develop kidney problems or high blood pressure.

This health effects language is not intended to catalog all possible health effects for lead. Rather, it is intended to inform consumers of the most significant and probable health effects, associated with lead in drinking water.

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What are EPA’s drinking water regulations for lead?
In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. This law requires EPA to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no adverse health effects are likely to occur with an adequate margin of safety. These non-enforceable health goals, based solely on possible health risks are called maximum contaminant level goals (MCLG)   The MCLG for lead is zero. EPA has set this level based on the best available science which shows there is no safe level of exposure to lead.

For most contaminants, EPA sets an enforceable regulation called a maximum contaminant level (MCL) based on the MCLGMCLs are set as close to the MCLGs as possible, considering cost, benefits and the ability of public water systems to detect and remove contaminants using suitable treatment technologies.  However, because lead contamination of drinking water often results from corrosion of the plumbing materials belonging to water system customers, EPA established a treatment technique rather than an MCL for lead. A treatment technique is an enforceable procedure or level of technological performance which water systems must follow to ensure control of a contaminant.  The treatment technique regulation for lead (referred to as the Lead and Copper rule) requires water systems to control the corrosivity of the water.  The regulation also requires systems to collect tap samples from sites served by the system that are more likely to have plumbing materials containing lead.  If more than 10% of tap water samples exceed the lead action level of 15 parts per billion, then water systems are required to take additional actions including:

  • Taking further steps optimize their corrosion control treatment (for water systems serving 50,000 people that have not fully optimized their corrosion control) .
  • Educating the public about lead in drinking water and actions consumers can take to reduce their exposure to lead.
  • Replacing the portions of lead service lines (lines that connect distribution mains to customers) under the water system’s control.

EPA promulgated the Lead and Copper Rule in 1991 and revised the regulation  in 2000 and 2007. States may set more stringent drinking water regulations than EPA.

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How does lead get into my drinking water?
The major sources of lead in drinking water are corrosion of household plumbing systems; and erosion of natural deposits. Lead enters the water (“leaches”) through contact with the plumbing. Lead leaches into water through corrosion – a dissolving or wearing away of metal caused by a chemical reaction between water and your plumbing. Lead can leach into water from pipes, solder, fixtures and faucets (brass), and fittings. The amount of lead in your water also depends on the types and amounts of minerals in the water, how long the water stays in the pipes, the amount of wear in the pipes, the water’s acidity and its temperature.

Although the main sources of exposure to lead are ingesting paint chips and inhaling dust, EPA estimates that 10 to 20 percent of human exposure to lead may come from lead in drinking water. Infants who consume mostly mixed formula can receive 40 to 60 percent of their exposure to lead from drinking water.

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How will I know if lead is in my drinking water?
Have your water tested for lead. A list of certified laboratory of labs are available from your state or local drinking water authority. Testing costs between $20 and $100. Since you cannot see, taste, or smell lead dissolved in water, testing is the only sure way of telling whether there are harmful quantities of lead in your drinking water. You should be particularly suspicious if your home has lead pipes (lead is a dull gray metal that is soft enough to be easily scratched with a house key) or if you see signs of corrosion (frequent leaks, rust-colored water). Your water supplier may have useful information, including whether the service connector used in your home or area is made of lead. Testing is especially important in high-rise buildings where flushing might not work.

If your water comes from a household well, check with your health department or local water systems that use ground water for information on contaminants of concern in your area.

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How can I reduce lead in drinking water at home?
Flush your pipes before drinking, and only use cold water for consumption. The more time water has been sitting in your home's pipes, the more lead it may contain. Anytime the water in a particular faucet has not been used for six hours or longer, "flush" your cold-water pipes by running the water until it becomes as cold as it will get. This could take as little as five to thirty seconds if there has been recent heavy water use such as showering or toilet flushing. Otherwise, it could take two minutes or longer. Your water utility will inform you if longer flushing times are needed to respond to local conditions.

Use only water from the cold-water tap for drinking, cooking, and especially for making baby formula. Hot water is likely to contain higher levels of lead. The two actions recommended above are very important to the health of your family. They will probably be effective in reducing lead levels because most of the lead in household water usually comes from the plumbing in your house, not from the local water supply.

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Should I be concerned about lead in drinking water in my child's school or child care facility?
Children spend a significant part of their days at school or in a child care facility. The faucets that provide water used for consumption, including drinking, cooking lunch, and preparing juice and infant formula, should be tested.

How do I learn more about my drinking water?
EPA strongly encourages people to learn more about their drinking water, and to support local efforts to protect and upgrade the supply of safe drinking water. Your water bill or telephone book’s government listings are a good starting point for local information.

Contact your water utility. EPA requires all community water systems to prepare and deliver an annual consumer confidence report (CCR) (sometimes called a water quality report) for their customers by July 1 of each year. If your water provider is not a community water system, or if you have a private water supply, request a copy from a nearby community water system.

Other EPA websites:

Other Federal Departments and Agencies

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