What Are the Signs of Lead in Tap Water?

Author: Jason Hollow - Published: 2021/11/11 - Updated: 2021/11/24

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Going back a few decades, Americans didn’t give their tap water a second thought. It was never a part of the conversation.

After all, we live in a first-world country where our source water is regulated, filtered and tested before it reaches our taps.

But that changed recently when the news of the Flint Lead Crisis surfaced. In 2014, the city of Flint started receiving water from the Flint River which turned out to be a huge mistake. Long story short, Flint residents were drinking water with roughly 104 μg/L of lead, which is a lot![1]

Nearly 100,000 people drank lead-tainted water for 18 months, when an outbreak of maladies shed light on the matter. It was only in July 2021 that the government replaced around 10,000 lead pipes in the city.[2]

The environmental disaster led many people to also question the presence of lead, the second most toxic metal on Earth, in their water supply. Are you one of them? How can you find out?

Here is our guide on the signs of lead in tap water.

How Can I Determine If My Water Contains Poisonous Lead?

You can’t tell by just looking at your water if it has any amount of lead flowing in it. Neither can you smell or taste it.

Sadly, there is no simple way to detect lead in water. Lead is odorless, tasteless, and completely invisible when dissolved in water. However, there is another way to find out if you are exposed to the neurotoxin: Conducting a water test.

Simply put, the only way to know for sure if there’s lead in your tap water, and if so how much, is to conduct a water test through a laboratory or using water test strips. Personally, we like to work with Tap Score.

If, on the contrary, you contact your water board, they’ll only be able to tell you the level of lead your water had when it left the treatment plant. However, lead may enter your water through the distribution channels and your home plumbing which are often notorious for containing it.

Signs/Symptoms of Lead Exposure Through Water Consumption

Signs of Lead in Tap Water

Lead exposure may not present any obvious signs or symptoms for years. Unless the contamination level gets to a seriously harmful height, you will not suspect a thing. That’s what makes the toxic metal so dangerous.

Does this mean lower levels of lead are fine and won’t harm you in any way? Absolutely not.

Lead is bio-accumulative in nature – it gets stored in your body. Hence, a seemingly small concentration in your drinking water over a long time can push you towards a litany of chronic diseases.

Therefore, we strongly suggest testing your water even if you have the slightest doubt.

Kids

Symptoms of lead exposure show up first in children under the age of 6 years. If you suspect your child is showing any signs of contamination, rush to the doctor and share your concerns.

Here are a few symptoms you should look out for.

  • Hearing loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Developmental delay
  • Irritability
  • Learning disabilities
  • Seizures

Adults

Here are a few symptoms that can be seen in adults.

  • Muscle pain
  • Headaches
  • Memory issues

Chronic Toxicity

Lead is a toxic heavy metal, so much that it can even cause chronic toxicity in your body. However, this only happens if exposure continues over a long period of time.

Here are the possible symptoms of chronic lead toxicity:

  • Developmental lag
  • Unreasonable behavior
  • Difficulty in learning

Acute Toxicity

Acute lead toxicity is relatively rare, but not impossible. Here are a few symptoms that mandate a visit to your doctor at the earliest. If left untreated, acute toxicity can result in coma or death.

  • Anemia
  • Dullness
  • Irritability
  • Convulsions
  • Memory loss
  • Poor attention span
  • Weakness

Who is at Risk of Lead Poisoning?

woman with headache

That one is easy to answer; everyone is at risk from the toxic metal, men and women and children. What’s worse is that even though lead poisoning can be treated, the damage is irreversible.

With that said, small kids and unborn fetuses are at even higher risk from lead exposure. The reason is simple: Children under six years of age have growing bones that absorb more lead as compared to adults. Moreover, their underdeveloped brain and nervous system are far less immune to the potent neurotoxin.

Similarly, lead is one of those elements that can cross the placental barrier and enter the bloodstream of the fetus. Apart from leading to low birth weight and size, severe cases can result in stillbirth and miscarriages.

A blood lead test is the most accurate way to identify lead in a child’s or pregnant woman’s body.

How Does Lead Get into Our Water Supplies?

Lead enters your water when lead plumbing materials corrode over time. Since lead is highly non-corrosive in nature, the deterioration takes place over the course of several years.

Similarly, if the water is highly acidic or contains a high amount of dissolved oxygen or chlorine, it dissolves more lead.

More Lead Contamination Sources

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common source of lead contamination is old lead-based paint.[3]

Here are a few other sources of lead:[4]

  1. Lipstick
  2. Toys
  3. Batteries
  4. Soil and air
  5. Folk medicine
  6. Lead-based ceramics
  7. Imported candies

How to Remove Lead from Drinking Water

When dealing with lead, prevention is better than cure. Let’s suppose you have identified serious lead contamination in your water supply. In that case, you must first identify if your house plumbing contains lead materials or the town has lead distribution channels.

If indoor plumbing is an issue, the permanent solution is to install new pipelines. Of course, this would mean having the time and budget to do so.

What you should also do is stop using hot water from the tap. Since hot water dissolves more lead, using cold water will limit the absorption.

Additionally, you can flush the water for a few minutes in the morning to remove water that was in prolonged contact with the pipelines and fixtures.

Finally, the simplest solution is to install a water filter.

under sink water filters thumbnail

Water Filtration

Water filters can easily remove lead, provided you buy one designed for the purpose. Here are the four water filter technologies that can reduce the concentration of lead in water:

  • Reverse osmosis
  • Activated carbon
  • KDF
  • Ion exchange

While reverse osmosis and ion exchange filters can remove over 95% lead, the other two can eliminate around 90%.

Depending on the level of contamination of your source water, you can select the best filtration technology.

Conclusion

Lead does not leave any obvious signs in tap water.

The only way to find out if your water contains lead is through testing.

You can hire a lab to test a water sample for you, or you can do the testing yourself using a simple test kit. Alternatively, contact your water utility or water board.

That said, lead contamination should not be taken lightly. Both acute and chronic exposure through drinking water poses a serious health risk for kids and adults alike.

You can remove lead from your water supply using a reverse osmosis system or a water filter based on carbon, KDF or ion exchange filter media.

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.

Get in Touch with Jason

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