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Lead in Drinking Water

How could I be exposed to lead?

Lead is present in many sources including food, dust, soil, some paint products, and drinking water. Drinking water’s contribution to total lead exposure is very low. For older children and adults, drinking water only contributes about 10% of total lead intake. Children under the age of 6 years and pregnant women are more at risk from lead exposure.

What is the safe limit for lead in drinking water?

The Ontario Drinking Water Standards has a maximum acceptable concentration for lead in drinking water of 0.01 mg/L (10 ug/L or parts per billion - ppb) at the point of consumption.

Note: One ppb is like one second in 32 years, or one penny in $10 million.

What are the health effects of lead exposure?

Exposure to lead may cause a range of health effects. The effects vary depending on the level and length of exposure to lead and the age of the person exposed. Exposure to small amounts of lead over a long time can be hazardous, especially to infants, young children and pregnant women.

Children are more at risk of adverse health effects related to lead exposure because they absorb lead more easily than adults. Children’s brains and nervous systems are also rapidly developing, making them more sensitive to the effects of lead. Infant and child behaviours (for example, crawling on the floor, putting objects in their mouths) may also expose them to lead. During pregnancy, lead can cross the placenta and reach the fetus.

Exposure to small amounts of lead over a long term may cause health effects in the blood system (for example, anaemia or low blood levels), the gastrointestinal system (for example, appetite loss, abdominal pain, constipation) and the nervous system (for example, fatigue, irritability, issues with intellectual development, behaviour and learning problems). No safe blood lead level in children has been determined. Short-term exposure to high levels of lead is very rare in Canada.

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • convulsions
  • coma
  • death

How could lead get into my drinking water?

The drinking water provided by municipalities is regularly tested and is essentially lead-free. However, most homes built before 1952 have lead water service lines, and prior to 1990, lead solder was also used in plumbing. If water is not being used in the home and it remains “standing” in plumbing that contains lead, the lead can dissolve into the water.

How do I know if my water service line is made of lead or if my home has lead solder in its plumbing?

If your home was built before 1952, the water service line is likely made of lead. If the plumbing in your home was put in or renovated prior to 1990, lead-based solder was likely used.

Can I tell if my water service line is made of lead by looking at it?

Yes. The water pipe servicing your home or business should be located in the basement. The only visible portion of the pipe is a 50 cm section between the concrete floor and the water meter. The rest of the pipe is underground. Scratch the pipe below the water meter with sandpaper to expose the bare metal. A lead pipe will look dull grey in colour and is easily scratched by a hard object. Copper pipes are red-brown and corroded portions may show a green deposit.

Can I have my drinking water tested for lead?

Yes. Residents on municipal water should contact their local municipality for information regarding testing lead in their drinking water.

What should I do to reduce the lead in my drinking water?

Use cold, flushed water for drinking and preparing food. Do not consume water from the hot water tap because heated water generally contains higher lead levels.

How should I “run” or “flush” the water to lower my exposure to lead?

If water has been sitting in the pipes for 6 hours or more, the lines should be “run” or “flushed”. This means that the water should be left to run from the cold water tap at medium flow for at least 5 minutes before being consumed. Flushing the toilet and washing your hands, running a shower or a major appliance, such as a washing machine or dishwasher is also effective.

Are some people more at risk from lead?

Children less than 6 years of age are still developing and are therefore more sensitive to the neurological (brain) and blood effects of lead. Children under 6 years of age also absorb lead more easily than adults. Pregnant women can pass lead in their blood to their fetus during pregnancy. That is why pregnant women need to keep their intake of lead as low as possible.

If the level of lead in the water is high, what should children under 6 years of age and pregnant women do?

  • drink lead-free bottled water
  • use an approved filter attached to the tap or plumbing system
  • use an approved water-pitcher filtration system

Do breastfeeding mothers need to use filtered water or bottled water if they have elevated lead levels in their drinking water?

Breastfeeding is important. Continue to breastfeed your child and follow normal precautions for reducing lead in drinking water. Although the risk of exposing your infant to lead through breastmilk is low, it is recommended that breastfeeding mothers who drink tap water from homes served by lead service lines consult with their health care provider.

Are babies who receive infant formula at risk for lead?

Infant formula should be used after making an informed decision. Water used to make baby formula can contribute 40 to 60% of an infant’s lead intake. To reduce the risk, use ready to feed infant formula, or prepare infant formula with filtered water or bottled water. Learn more about infant feeding by contacting the Porcupine Health Unit.

What should I do if my child has been drinking water from the tap and I have elevated lead levels in my drinking water?

Call Health811 at 1-866-797-0007 or speak with a health care provider about any specific health concerns.

Do water filters remove lead from water?

Many water filter devices and systems DO remove lead. If you choose to use a water filter device or system, make sure that it meets the standards set by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) for reducing lead. Look for NSF Certified or an NSF logo on the product label. Carefully follow the manufacturers’ instructions and be sure that:

  • the water is free of bacteria (municipal water supplies are routinely tested by the municipality)
  • the water is run for at least 30 seconds prior to consuming it if the filter is on the tap
  • the filter is changed as recommended by the manufacturer

Is all bottled water lead-free?

No, not all bottled water is lead-free. You can check this by reading the label on the bottle. Only drinking water that lists a value of zero (0) for lead (the letters Pb may be used instead of lead).

If I have lead service lines, can I use the water for bathing, showering, and washing dishes and clothes?

Yes. Bathing, showering, and washing dishes and clothes does not expose people to lead.

What are some other sources of lead exposure?

Lead occurs naturally in the environment and has many industrial uses. Everyone is exposed to trace amounts of lead through air, soil, household dust, food, drinking water and various consumer products, such as lead-based paint or lead-based glazes.


*This material has been adapted with the permission of Public Health Sudbury & Districts.