Is your plumbing contaminating your drinking water?

Household pipes and fixtures can create health issues — even in newer homes. Learn what the culprits are and how to protect your family.

Homes built after 1986 are likely to have plumbing pipes made from PVC, CPVC, PEX or perhaps copper or galvanized metal. All of these are an improvement over older lead plumbing and plumbing materials, banned because they can leach lead into a home’s drinking (potable) water. (Bing:What are the health hazards of lead?)
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, lead in drinking water has some significant health effects, including:
1) Children under 6 can have delayed mental and physical development.
2) Some children under 6 can experience slight deficits in their attention span and learning capabilities.
3) Prolonged adult exposure can create high blood pressure or kidney problems.
Does a home you’re buying have lead pipes?
Lead plumbing is often a case of “let the buyer beware.” Counties and cities often do not require sellers to bring plumbing up to code. Failure to have an independent home inspection is not only penny-wise and pound-foolish, but it can expose your family to health hazards. Before buying, hire an independent lab to test samples from the home’s faucets.
Chris Spannagel, owner of Best By Farr Plumbing in Cottonwood, Ariz., says that almost anything that touches drinking water since the mid-1980s is relatively lead-free. He last replaced lead pipes 30 years ago when he was working in Denver’s older homes. More recent faucets can be another story.

What inorganic contaminants enter home drinking water?
Groundwater is seldom a source of inorganic contaminants. But lead is not the only metal piping that can leach contaminants into drinking water.
  • Galvanized pipes: Exposure to cadmium from natural deposits, leaching pipe fittings or older chrome-plated faucets can contaminate water. Over the years, this exposure can damage kidneys.
  • Copper pipes: If incoming water is below pH 6.5, or if lead solder was used to join pipe segments, copper and/or lead can leach into drinking water. For some people, short-term exposure to copper creates gastrointestinal distress. People with long-term exposure can suffer liver or kidney damage. People with Wilson’s disease can be particularly susceptible.
  • Solder and PVC joint compounds: Reduced-lead solder and liquid joint compounds are today’s standard but may not have been used when your home was built.
  • Other inorganic (nonbiological) drinking-water contaminants: In the EPA’s list of 16inorganic contaminants, only lead, galvanized metal and copper cite plumbing as a contamination source. Sources of other contaminants include pollution from industry or, more rarely, natural soils. In older neighborhoods, the culprit can be the lead pipe between your house and the city water main.
Mitigating plumbing-caused problems
Your water company’s annual quality report or a test of your well can determine whether your external source has safe inorganic levels. Testing water from household faucets can determine if contamination is present from interior household plumbing. Remedies are specific to each type of contaminant. Systems range from reverse osmosis to distillation and filtration. Any of them are only as good as your rigorous attention to replacing filters or keeping the system in top working condition.

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