Do Activated Carbon Filters Remove Lead from Water?

Author: Jason Hollow - Published: 2021/11/11 - Updated: 2021/11/11

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Unlike many other drinking water contaminants, lead is not naturally present in your water supply. But thanks to human intervention, the poisonous bluish metal has made its way to all parts of our environment – air, soil and water.

One of the growing environmental concerns is its presence in tap/well water supplies. It enters your water through the lead distribution channels and indoor plumbing. From there, it enters your bloodstream poisoning your kidney, liver and neural system.

What’s worse is that lead contamination can go undetected for years on end because lead in water is odorless, colorless and tasteless. So even if your water tastes, smells and looks completely fine, it’s not essentially clean and safe – think lead-free.

Now, it’s time to take matters into our own hands so that a major water crisis like Flint can be prevented before it gets lethal. Today we talk about how you can remove lead from water using a carbon-based water filter.

So, here is our guide answering the question, do carbon filters remove lead?

Also Read: 10 Best Water Filters that Remove Lead

Does a Carbon Filter Remove Lead?

Do Carbon Filters Remove Lead

Contrary to popular belief, not all carbon filters can remove lead. Instead, only an activated carbon filter containing the right kind and a sufficient quantity of activated carbon can reduce lead. With that said, such filters “only” reduce 95% of the amount of the poisonous metal; they can’t eradicate it completely.

So how does it work? Most carbon filters work through the process of adsorption. But lead does not adhere to the highly porous carbon surface. Thus, only a very fine carbon block filter with a rating of 1 micron or lower – this means its pores are 1 micron in size or smaller – can stop lead particles from passing through.

Carbon filters can remove more than the famous bad guy. The most widely used and economical filter offers spectacular filtration by removing chlorine, pesticides, herbicides and lots of other organic contaminants.

Before investing in an activated carbon filter, though, it’s essential to check for NSF/ANSI certifications. For lead removal, the filter must be certified (or at least tested to) NSF standard 53 for lead reduction.

NSF certifications eliminate the guesswork out of your carbon filter buying process. The NSF is an independent organization that develops product standards to ensure public safety. They also make it easy for consumers to trust a brand by ensuring strict testing protocols.

To summarize, a carbon filter should have the following characteristics to remove lead from water effectively.

  • Carbon block rather than granular carbon
  • Rated at 1 micron or less
  • Sufficient amount of filter media
  • NSF certification 53 for lead reduction

What’s Lead Anyway?

Lead is a naturally occurring element that makes up 0.0013% of the Earth’s crust. Strong yet malleable, it has some beneficial uses but, unfortunately, is extremely toxic to human health.

It has been used in a wide variety of products found in our homes, including ceramics, pipes, paint, batteries and even in your cosmetics.

How Lead Enters Our Water Systems

Most of the lead gets into our water supplies through aging lead service lines. It is important to note here that lead is a highly non-corrosive metal in nature, and therefore the process of corrosion takes a long time.

Industrial Runoff

When negligent factory owners dump their untreated waste down water bodies, lead and possibly numerous other contaminants make their way into our water sources.

Factories that make lead-based products are the main culprit in this regard.

With that said, once the water reaches your town’s water filtration plant, it is filtered and treated. As a result, lead contamination can be lowered by a great bit. But please note: The actionable level for lead in public water supplies is 15 parts per billion. In other words, this is when water utilities need to get active, while the safe level of lead in water is zero.

Lead Service Lines

Lead distribution channels are widespread all across America. According to the NRDC[1], 9.7 to 12.8 million lead pipes are still operating across 50 states. What’s shocking is that this may be a low-ball estimate due to the lack of transparent data.

What’s more, when water leaves a filtration plant it is subjected to potential downstream contamination before it reaches your house. A chemical reaction inside lead pipelines results in lead flakes and ions dissolving in the water.

The longer the water stays in contact with the pipes, the higher the concentration of lead it can pick up.

Home Plumbing

If you live in a house built before 1986, chances are your plumbing contains at least some amount of lead in the form of pipes, solders or fixtures. When water enters your house and passes through these lines, it accumulates more of the deadly heavy metal.

By the time it reaches your faucets and taps, the water is severely contaminated; to the point of being unfit for usage.

All things aside, if you live in a town with a relatively new water distribution network and in a newly built house/apartment, you don’t need to worry as much. However, in the opposite scenario, it may be time to run for the hills (not literally!).

Health Effects of Lead in Drinking Water

Lead is poisonous even if consumed in small amounts. It’s just not meant to be in close contact with humans.

What’s worse is that lead contamination often goes unnoticed for many years. That is why the silent attacker can cause serious health troubles by accumulating in your body.

woman with headache

Children

Small kids under the age of six are highly vulnerable to the disastrous effects of lead. And the younger the child, the worse the consequences are.

Simply put, their growing bodies store more lead than an adult body. Unfortunately, the adverse health effects of lead are irreversible, and so prevention is the only way to defeat it.

You’d be surprised to know that 1 in 40 children[2] in the US (between ages 1-5) have elevated blood levels – way above the safe level.

It may be essential to note that lead exposure is quite prevalent as it is found in many objects that we use daily; for example, toys, paint and some ceramics.

The neurotoxin can cause:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Behavioral problems
  • Hearing and speech issues
  • Lower IQ
  • Low appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Sleep problems
  • Constipation

Adults

Adults with moderate exposure to lead may recover without any serious complications. However, that doesn’t mean that undetected prolonged lead exposure will not cause serious health effects. Some of them include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Abdominal pain
  • Mood disorders
  • Problems with memory
  • Low concentration
  • Headache
  • Joint and muscular pain
  • Diminished sperm count and abnormal sperm

Pregnancy

Pregnant women or, more specifically, the unborn fetus can be significantly affected by lead exposure, too. Like alcohol and other drugs, lead can cross the placental barrier. Even lead stored in the bones can mobilize and endanger the women and the fetus.

Lead poisoning in a pregnant woman can result in low birth weight of the baby, or worse, miscarriage.

Removal of Lead with Activated Carbon Filters

You can easily find different types of water filters such as whole house systems or pitchers that feature activated carbon block cartridges.

How Do Activated Carbon Filters Work?

Activated carbon filters, also called charcoal filters if derived from it, work by adsorption. In this process, pollutants in a fluid like water are trapped inside the tiny pores of the carbon structure when flowing through the filter media.

Activated carbon is not just any carbon. It is treated to have a wide surface area. In fact, a teaspoon of activated carbon has a larger surface area than a football field!

Types of Carbon

Here are the two most commonly used types of activated carbon filters.

  • Granular activated carbon (GAC): A granular carbon filter comprises of loose granules (usually less than a millimeter in size). The carbon is held together inside a container.
  • Block carbon: Block carbon is made by compressing powdered carbon in a solid block form. Due to the high density, water stays in prolonged contact with the filter media.

Activated charcoal powder

What Other Water Contaminants Does a Carbon Filter Remove?

Activated carbon filters are used extensively in water filtration applications. Not only are they excellent as standalone filters, but they play an indispensable role as pre-filters, such as in RO systems.

But as long as your main concerns are improving the taste and smell of your water, removing chemicals and reducing lead, a carbon filter can be a great choice.

Here is how they make your water pure. Carbon filters can remove/reduce:

  • Chlorine
  • Chlorine byproducts
  • Sulfur
  • Pesticides
  • Volatile organic compounds
  • Some waterborne pathogens

What Do Carbon Filters Miss?

Carbon filters will not remove any of these contaminants:

  • Minerals
  • Salts
  • Fluoride
  • Dissolved inorganic substances
  • Solid particles that are too small, i.e. some heavy metals

Conclusion

An activated carbon block filter with a small enough rating of 1 micron or lower can remove 95% lead and more from water.

Whether a certain carbon filter is effective against lead can be checked looking for NSF testing and certifications against standard 53. You need to look for lead reduction specifically.

Most lead enters our water supplies as it corrodes out of pipes and solder. The heavy metal is highly dangerous.

Aside from lead, activated carbon filters remove all kinds of chemicals from water but are ineffective against minerals/salts and many other dissolved inorganics.

Further Reading

Resources

Meet Jason Hollow

Jason Hollow Jason is the founder of Water Masterz and head of content creation. After six years in the industry, he has tremendous knowledge and first-hand experience on all things related to water treatment.

His credo: Not a single American should have to drink unhealthy water at home.

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