Does my water contain lead?

The water crisis in Flint, MI, has spurred many inquiries about lead in tap water. If you’re curious to know about what can be done about lead in your drinking water, have a look at this FAQ.

What caused the water crisis in Flint?

We’re going to leave the politics at the door here and just focus on the facts, and keep in mind I’m writing very generally here. For up-to-date facts about this crisis, check out the news sources in Michigan.

So here’s what happened: In 2015 officials in the City of Flint decided to switch the source of the city’s drinking water from Detroit to the Flint River. When the switch was made, though, officials neglected to update the water’s treatment regimen. (Unless water is treated with certain chemicals, it will cause plumbing corrosion. The chemical makeup of each water source is always a little different, so if the source is switched the treatment must be altered to match so plumbing will not corrode.) Without the updated treatment procedures, water from the Flint River caused increased corrosion of the city’s pipes. The effects of this fact were made worse since Flint also has a very old and outdated plumbing infrastructure including thousands of water service lines made of lead. The service line is what brings your water from the city’s water main into your home. So the mis-treated water was causing increased corrosion of thousands of lead-based service lines, which resulted in higher concentrations (and discoloration) of lead in the drinking water, which later caused Flint’s citizens to ingest more toxic lead.

The tragedy was made worse by the fact that children, due to their younger development compared with adults, have increased risk of lead poisoning when lead exposure goes up. Children lack a blood-brain barrier, which is a membrane on the back of your neck that is capable of filtering some lead before it reaches the brains of adults.

Do I have lead pipes?

City of Madison lead service line map

City of Madison lead service line map

There are three places there could be lead plumbing affecting your home’s water supply. The first is the service line, which is under the control of your local water utility. This section of pipe is located on the city’s property and brings water from the utility’s water main onto your property. The second place there could be lead plumbing is the section of the service line within your property. Ask your water utility to check records on whether either of those sections is made from lead plumbing. In Madison, you can email Joseph Grande at JGrande@madisonwater.org. If you live outside Madison, contact your local water utility. The last place is inside your home. Depending on construction practices during the time of your home’s construction, it might contain lead plumbing. The water utility will only know about the makeup of the water main and service lines; the utility will not have information about whether your home contains lead plumbing.

For Madison residents, you might read this article from the city’s water utility detailing an ambitious plan begun in 2000 to replace the city’s lead service lines. Prior to 1928, the city had used lead service lines in this areas shown in the map at right.

Can you check if my home has lead plumbing?

Yes. During a lead inspection or risk assessment we can take a look at your pipes to check if they contain lead. Keep in mind that not all the plumbing in your home will be accessible.

Can you test my water for lead?

Testudo can help with that for a fee. When a sampling date is set, let the tap sit dormant for at least 8 hours prior (the longer the better). That way the sample collected will be a kind of worst-case-scenario—the sample should represent the maximum amount of lead exposure that could occur if there is 1) lead in your water supply or 2) lead in your home’s plumbing.

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