Common Sense about Lead in Drinking Water

by Gene Franks

In ancient times, people drank from lead vessels because they didn’t know any better. There’s no longer any excuse.–Bloomberg News Editorial. 

Lead’s toxicity has been known for centuries, but lead remained a popular choice for water service lines installed up to the 1980s. It’s more flexible and durable than iron. About 6 million lead service lines are still in use today, connecting households to water mains. Prior to 1986, copper pipes inside a person’s home could also be joined with lead solder.Olga Khazan in The Atlantic.

Some sobering information has surfaced because of the attention focused on the out-of-control lead contamination problems of Flint and Newark. We learn, for example, that the nation’s drinking water infrastructure has so many lead-emitting metal pipes that we can’t begin to count them, and, what is worse, we don’t even know where they are.

Here are some points to ponder:

  •  Lead in water supplies is not a new problem. It is mainly public awareness of the problem that is new.
  • The strategy for protecting the public from lead in water pipes, apart from vague, yet-to-be-funded proposals to replace the pipes, has been chemical treatment aimed at keeping pH high and adding sequestering chemicals. This seems to work most of the time, but the result isn’t predictable. Water treatment is complicated, and success can depend on variables like temperature, flow rate, and other chemicals present. Pipes and conditions in your home may be completely different from those where the supplier’s test was taken. Success of this strategy is also heavily dependent on the skill and dedication of the local technicians maintaining the system.
  • Testing required by federal regulators is sporadic. Tens of millions of gallons of water pass through the pipes between mandated tests. Finding no lead at a test site on Elm Street doesn’t mean there isn’t lead in a home on Maple Street. I used to say that the way testing is conducted is like checking one passenger at the airport and if he doesn’t have a bomb,  you assume that the next ten million passengers are also bomb free. Actually, with lead it’s worse that that: it’s more like testing one passenger and assuming that the next ten million passengers as well as the passengers at the airports of surrounding cities are bomb free. The odds that you are protected from lead by a test done five miles from your home six weeks ago are pretty bad.
  • The message we get from water suppliers seems to be: Be patient. We’ll get this fixed. You can count on us. Be sure to run your tap five to fifteen minutes before you drink the water. When things are really bad, they give free bottled water or provide a cheap pour-through water filter.


To protect yourself from lead, you could drink nothing but bottled water.  That isn’t a bad solution.  Or, you could  a) write letters to city officials demanding action, b) wait for all the lead water pipes to be replaced, c)  keep drinking tap water and hope for the best,  or, d) get yourself a good water filter. If you choose a through c, good luck.  If you choose d, I have some advice.

First, lead is a drinking water issue.  While whole house lead solutions are available, it is usually more practical to treat drinking water only. For lead-free drinking water, you have some good choices: a steam distiller, reverse osmosis, or a substantial carbon filter with lead removal resin added. Of the three, reverse osmosis is the most practical. Reverse osmosis removes lead by its nature, without the need for special cartridges. Reverse osmosis, of course, has the advantage of treating not only lead but virtually all contaminants that can be found in city water.

Lead reduction cartridge filters vary in quality, but any reasonably-sized undersink or countertop filter from a trusted filter maker will provide excellent, lead-free water. I underline “reasonably sized.” The pitcher filters provided free by cities don’t really qualify as water filters. They are novelty items made for pick up sales in discount stores. The early tests done on the city-provided filters in Newark that lead to a blanket “filters don’t work” warning were done with city-provided pitcher filters with only enough lead capacity for 30 gallons of water. They have a warning light for cartridge replacement that is there to inspire confidence. You really don’t need a warning light: you need more resin. A full-sized drinking water cartridge with lead removal rating of 2500 gallons from a reputable filter maker actually costs considerably less to operate than the tiny novelty systems.