Lead Plumbing Pipe Hazards
How to Identify Lead
Drain & Water Supply Piping in Buildings
LEAD PIPES in BUILDINGS - CONTENTS: How to identify lead plumbing pipes (supply or drains) in buildings. Life expectancy & leak issues with lead drain piping.Life expectancy of lead water piping. Life expectancy lead water service main piping. Should we replace lead plumbing in buildings?
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Lead pipes in buildings:
This article discusses identification of lead drain or water supply piping, durability, leaks, health questions. We give a brief history of the use of lead supply & drain pipes, we illustrate where you will find and how to recognize lead pipes, and we discuss the question of which lead pipes need replacement and what the health and leak issues really are with lead plumbing.
Our page top photo illustrates an easy-to-spot lead water supply pipe: the building water main entering at left of the water meter. The articles at this website will answer most questions about water supply & drain piping, wells, & water tanks as well as many other building plumbing system inspection or defect topics.
Lead Hazard Warning: consumption or absorption of lead into the human body is hazardous, particularly for children but in fact for anyone.  & [3-23].
And at least one correspondent has expressed the view that there is no level of lead exposure for which they have not found an adverse effect. 
Our lead water pipe photo at left illustrates one of quite a few places to look for hidden lead pipes in older buildings: in the plumbing access behind a bath tub or shower.
Portions of the following summary are from Carson Dunlop Associates' Home Reference Book, adated & used with permission:
Lead piping was used between the street main and the house up until the 1950s. A good deal
of lead supply line is still in use, and the health authorities indicate that as long as it is used
regularly, there is no functional [that is flow] difficulty with it.
Watch out: some assert that one can avoid the hazards of lead in water when the water has not been run for some time, by running water several minutes before using it.
In fact our own tests conducted in concert with City authorities in Poughkeepsie NY at homes with lead water entry mains confirmed that if the city flushed out nearby water mains and the homeowner flushed out the home's water piping until the water ran cold - that is, was fresh water from the mains - immediately before collecting a water sample to check for lead, the resultant lead levels were very low and were often below the city's minimum acceptable lead levels.
In November 2010 the New York Times reported that in 2009 only 5.4% of samples had elevated lead, but in 2010 tests of 222 water samples found lead from 16-30 ppb in 14% of the samples. Although at these low levels the city did not consider the lead a clear health hazard, the city advised residents to run water for "at least 30 seconds" before drinking or cooking with it. A similar advisory was issued in 2005.
Watch out: the length of time needed to run water to flush out high-lead-level water that has been sitting in piping overnight depends on the total length of pipe between your tap and the street as well as use by other building occupants. If you run water at a tap until it is cold you have most likely successfully flushed the lines. This same principle applies to private residences.
EPA Lead limit: Although most homes have very low levels of lead in their drinking water, some homes in some communities have lead levels
above the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb), or 0.015 milligrams of lead per liter of water (mgL).
Under Federal Law water suppliers are required to have a program in place to minimize lead in drinking water by January 1, 1996. This program includes
corrosion control treatment, source water treatment, and public education. We are also required to replace each lead service line that we control if the line
contributes to lead concentrations of 15 ppb or more after we have completed the comprehensive treatment program. If you have any questions about how the
requirements of the lead regulations are being carried out, call your local water department or health department.
Lead water entry mains & Lead Drain Pipes in Buildings
Our photo at above left shows a lead water main entering the building - to the left of the water meter.
Above simliar but larger-diameter lead piping is used to drain plumbing fixtures.
In our OPINION both lead water supply piping and lead drain piping are potentially hazardous sources of lead in drinking water. The lead supply pipe risks are obvious and are discussed in this article. The hazard of lead drain piping are a bit more subtle and rest in the possible discharge of lead containing water into private sewer systems and thus into local aquifers.
The life expectancy
of lead water supply piping is indefinite in some soils and in more corrosive soils we have plumbers' opinions that the service life of buried lead water supply piping is 40 to 50 years.
The life expectancy of lead drain piping may be 50 years or longer, but varies by water corrosivity and amount of use as well as mechanical disturbance. Below we include a photograph and text of corroded leaky lead drain piping below a toilet.
Should We Replace Lead Water Supply Pipes?
Lead water supply piping may be a source of lead contamination of drinking water in some buildings.
Our own tests confirmed that where water is aggressive (leaching out lead from the pipes) and or where water that has been sitting in lead piping over night lead levels can be considerably higher than the US EPA standard cited above.
Our photo (left) shows a lead water supply pipe delivering water below a bathroom sink.
The right-hand pipe from the floor to the galvanized iron tee is lead, which you can recognize by the pipe diameter, by the lead wipe joint at the connection, and if necessary by gently scraping the pipe or using a magnet (lead is not magnetic but then niether is brass). Notice that the left hand water supply riser has already been replaced.
Watch out: our tests have found that running the water until cold water from the street is felt at the tap will reduce the levels of lead in building water and in some tests that lead level was below the current EPA standard. However in our OPINION and that of at least one writer from the US EPA, because of numerous variables this is not a safe reliable way to avoid ingesting lead.
There may be other reasons besides leaks to replace lead water supply piping, including possible health concerns (arguable), or poor water pressure or flow.
Lead Water Pipes & Poor Water Pressure: Up until World War II, most of the service pipes in built-up areas were lead. While these generally provide good service, they are small in diameter and may have to be replaced.
Long runs of relatively small (1/2-inch diameter) pipe result in considerable pressure drop, especially with more than one fixture flowing. Solutions include replacement with larger pipe or shortening the runs.
Also, lead is relatively soft, and if building settlement occurs, there is a chance of leakage or crimping the pipe. Leaks can also occur at connections as a result of long-term deterioration.
Another source of water entry main piping leaks is a little more subtle:
Many of the old lead service lines were connected to a galvanized nipple – a short piece of steel
that was often in contact with the soil. This pipe rusts on the outside and inside, and may be close to the end of its life. It is often wise to replace this as a precautionary measure.
When Do We Need to Replace Lead Drain Piping?
Leaky lead drain piping: Lead drain pipes in buildings are often leaky and need replacement. If there is no visible corrosion on the piping and no evidence of leakage, the lead drain pipe may be quite serviceable.
Don't assume that because visible building drain piping in an old house is cast iron that no lead pipe bends were used.
As our lead toilet bend photograph (left) shows, often the toilet in older homes was mounted using a lead drain line.
Extra Costs for Renovation or Repair of Lead Drain Piping
Watch out: a lead drain line below a bath tub was identified in our photo at left - found by viewing the floor piping seen at a plumbing access opening in a 1935-built home in Poughkeepsie, NY.
We did not see any signs that the lead drain (the silver-gray colored, bulged horizontal pipe in our photo (left)).
But because this second-floor bathroom was constructed using a poured concrete floor, and because asbestos pipe insulation was present on the brass hot water supply pipe (parallel to and above the lead drain line shown at left ), when this drain leaks and needs repairs, extra costs will be involved, both to access the concrete encased piping, and to properly handle the asbestos insulation.
Until there is a leak, this piping and the asbestos insulation should be left undisturbed.
Quick Tests to Determine if Building Piping is Made of Brass, Copper, Galvanized Iron, or Lead
Lead pipes (red arrow in our photo above): scraping a lead pipe will reveal a shiny silver-white color and soft material. The pipe will not attract a magnet. PIpes terminate in a wider-diameter lead wipe joint that in turn may marry to a threaded nipple or adapter.
Brass water pipes (orange arrow in our photo): scraping brass will reveal a shiny yellow color. The pipe will not attract a magnet. Pipe fittings are mostly threaded but may on occasion be soldered. Watch out: some brass water piping contains lead in the brass alloy.
Copper pipes may range in color from shiny copper color to black depending on age, location, hot or cold water use, and other conditions. See COPPER PIPING in buildings for details. Copper pipe will not attract a magnet.
Galvanized iron pipes (blue arrow in our photo): scraping a galvanized iron pipe will also reveal a shiny silver-white color but the pipe will attract a magnet and most likely you can find threaded pipe fittings.
Reader comment: Ace DuraFlow Epoxy Liner ePipe® Restoration Services for deteriorated or clogged piping
2016/03/21 Bill said:
Have you become familiar with Ace Duraflo's EPipe solution? I encourage you to check it out as it is a much more cost effective way of dealing with both residential lead issues and pin hole leaks. You will also discover they are doing considerable relining of lead service pipes in the UK.
Ace DuraFlow EPipe is a procedure using a combination of heating, drying and cleaning (sanding) the interior of deteriorated piping followed by installation of an epoxy liner inside the pipe. The system is used in the North America, U.K., and other countries. The company's website does not (that I could find) provide much detail, cost comparisons, research or much technical information but the procedure indeed may be suitable for some piping problems depending on the pipe condition. The company notes that their process is suitable for domestic water systems (galvanized, copper, and PEX piping) and non-potable systems.
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[1a] Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), U.S. EPA, web search 11/7/2010, original source: http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/rulesregs/sdwa/index.cfm
[1b] Understanding the Safe Drinking Water Act, U.S. EPA, EPA 816-F-04-030 June 2004, web search 11/7/2010, original source: http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/guidance/sdwa/upload/
[1d] Drinking Water Treatment, U.S. EPA, web search 11/7/2010, original source:
2009_08_28_sdwa_fs_30ann_treatment_web.pdf [Warning: this file is difficult or impossible to download from the EPA website - 11/2010]
"The voluntary standard established in the United States under ASTM F-963 and the European standard under EN-71 for soluble lead in toys (lead which may migrate from the toy and be ingested by the child) is 90 parts-per-million. At that level, any intentional use of lead in paints or other surface coatings containing lead would immediately put the toy over the permitted limit."
"Under federal law, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) enforces a standard for total lead of 600 ppm. Recently, the CPSC refused to lower the lead limit in paint and other similar surface coating materials to 100 ppm after finding that most paints sold in the United States were already at or below that level and, therefore, these materials did not present an unreasonable risk of injury warranting further government regulation."
"The lead-in-construction standard was intended to apply to any detectable concentration of lead in paint, as even small concentrations of lead can result in unacceptable employee exposures depending upon on the method of removal and other workplace conditions. Since these conditions can vary greatly, the lead-in-construction standard was written to require exposure monitoring or the use of historical or objective data to ensure that employee exposures do not exceed the action level. Historical data may be applied to all construction tasks involving lead. Objective data was intended to apply to all tasks other than those listed under paragraph (d)(2) of the standard.
["OSHA does not consider X-ray fluorescence (XRF) to be an acceptable method of analysis. As stated in your letter, XRF analyzers are generally considered accurate when concentrations of lead in paint exceed 1 mg/cm�. For the purposes of occupational health, these levels are considered substantial and may easily present an exposure hazard. Without having conducted monitoring, or without the benefit of historical or objective data, the employer has no assurance of the employee's exposure.
"Other regulatory agencies, such as Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) have designated levels of lead in paint below which they consider the paint to be non-lead containing. The missions of these agencies differ from OSHA's, and for that reason, OSHA cannot recognize these levels as safe under workplace situations"
We recommend reviewing this position letter from OSHA. -- DF
 How to Identify Lead Paint Hazards, Maryland Department of the Environment, outlines
when a lead inspection is necessary, who can perform a lead inspection, and the types of analysis used for lead inspections and testing. Maryland
DOE includes suggestions for do-it-yourself lead paint testing using paint chips or scrapings. If you follow this approach be sure your
samples accurately represent conditions at the whole building, inside and out -- DF.
 Dutchess County New York, Health Department: an original source whose contents were paraphrased, adapted, and expanded for this article include public information document provided by the City of Poughkeepsie New York (Dutchess County) to residents served by city water supply system, December 1995.
 M.D.T., private correspondence, 2/13/2013 [on file]. M.D.T. is an EPA employee and among comments included this remark for which we express thanks, though the following does not reflect the EPA's current action level for lead hazards in water:
Lead is neuro-toxic even in very low doses. It causes permanent (irreversible) damage to children’s brain cells.
 Steven G. Gilbert & Bernard Weiss, "A rationale for lowering the blood lead action level from 10 to 2 μg/dL", NeuroToxicology, Volume 27, Issue 5, September 2006, Pages 693–701, Environment and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, 22nd International Neurotoxicology Conference
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The Home Reference Book - the Encyclopedia of Homes, Carson Dunlop & Associates, Toronto, Ontario, 25th Ed., 2012, is a bound volume of more than 450 illustrated pages that assist home inspectors and home owners in the inspection and detection of problems on buildings. The text is intended as a reference guide to help building owners operate and maintain their home effectively. Field inspection worksheets are included at the back of the volume.
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