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Lead is invisible, odorless and tasteless when dissolved or floating in water.
Perhaps, this is why lead contamination has become one of the most pressing drinking water concerns in the United States. The heavy metal creeps silently into your tap and poisons you and your family for years without raising a single red flag.
So what should you do if your gut feeling is screaming something is wrong? Rather than relying on your tongue, nose and eyes to detect the presence of lead, you must immediately resort to testing – either at home or at a lab.
If you want to learn more about dealing with a lead-contaminated water supply, you are at the right place. We will answer all your questions from start to finish.
So, here is our guide on the topic, what does lead in water look, taste and smell like?
- 1 What Does Lead in Water Look Like?
- 2 Can You Smell Lead in Water?
- 3 Can You Taste Lead in Water?
- 4 How Does Lead Enter Our Drinking Water?
- 5 Health Effects of Lead in Drinking Water
- 6 What to Do About This? Start with Testing!
- 7 Removing Lead from Your Drinking Water
- 8 Other Measures You Can Take
- 9 Conclusion
- You cannot taste, smell, or see lead in water.
What Does Lead in Water Look Like?
Lead particles/ions are far too small to be seen by the naked eye. In fact, you could be drinking lead-contaminated water for years and years and never suspect a thing.
Can You Smell Lead in Water?
Similar to lead fumes and lead dust, lead in water has no smell at all. So, don’t try sniffing it out because you won’t catch a whiff of it. You will not have the faintest idea that you are exposed to the neurotoxic element unless a doctor finds a severe health issue and ties it back to the neurotoxin.
Can You Taste Lead in Water?
No, you can’t diagnose lead-contaminated water relying on your sense of taste. Since lead is tasteless, you won’t detect a thing even if you chug loads of it. So, when it comes to lead, you can’t rely on your taste buds unless you have superhuman powers (no, perhaps not even then).
How Does Lead Enter Our Drinking Water?
Lead gets into your water through corroded and aging lead pipelines/fixtures or lead-rich solders. As water passes through a lead service line, some flakes can dissolve into the water polluting it. According to the NRDC, over 12.8 million pipelines containing lead are spread across all 50 states in the US.
What’s worse is this figure is just a lowball estimate due to a lack of state-provided data. The actual number or danger could be potentially even more shocking.
Health Effects of Lead in Drinking Water
Lead is the second most toxic metal on Earth. Quite naturally, long-term exposure to it can cause multiple health problems. And unfortunately, lead can accumulate in your body over time.
Truth is, lead was never meant for human use. However, once the heavy metal was introduced to our surroundings in the form of paint, pipelines, machinery, toys, ceramics, batteries, cosmetics, etc., the cumulative poison began to create troubles.
Lead can cause acute damage to the kidneys and brain. Moreover, lead restricts the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to our organs.
For kids, the plight is even worse. Children exposed to high levels of lead suffer from brain damage and are often subject to behavioral disorders.
Is There a Safe Level of Lead?
A safe level for lead? That’s a no-brainer. There is no safe level of lead in water since it is a neurotoxin that can harm you in more than one way.
However, the level at which water utilities are supposed to take action or rather say “actionable level” is a whooping 15 parts per billion. In simple terms, as long as the water you drink contains 15 ppb or less, it will not be further treated nor require any mediation.
If this number scares you, there is further bad news. Lead is one of those contaminants that enter a water supply once the water has left the filtration plant. So let’s say your water had around 10 ppb lead right after treatment; it could probably pick up another 15 ppb as it reaches your home.
Sadly this translates to the fact that lead contamination must be dealt with on an individual level, and you can’t rely on your water board.
Unless the US government modifies all pipelines or service lines with non-lead materials, you will always remain under threat.
What to Do About This? Start with Testing!
So, should you continue using the contaminated water? No!
Then, should you shift to unsustainable bottled water? No, please don’t harm your planet and your wallet so badly.
We believe the logical course of action to deal with lead begins with testing how much of it is present in your water supply. And while you’re at it, you can also test for other water contaminants.
Once you know about all the different pollutants and impurities swimming around in your water, you can make a plan for how to deal with all of them.
Locate a Testing Lab
Unless you test your water for lead, you will never find out if you are exposed to the toxin.
So, find a certified lab near your home and send over a water sample. It may cost you a few hundred dollars, but the results will be accurate and precise.
Personally, we like to work with Tap Score. They offer a water test specifically for lead.
Lead Water Test Kits
Alternatively, you can buy lead water test strips from any home improvement store. Costing at $30 a set, they are simple to use and give instant results.
The only drawback is a strip won’t highlight the level of contamination or the presence of other substances.
In the same way, your local water department may also carry lead test kits that provide instantaneous results. All you need to do is call the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline and schedule a visit from a professional.
Most states have legally bound health departments to conduct a lead test on the request of an individual. If you are interested, give your health department a call and schedule a visit.
Not only will the risk assessors highlight the issues in your house, but they will also help you deal with them.
Removing Lead from Your Drinking Water
Once you have identified that your water is contaminated with lead, of course, it’s only wise to look for options to remove it.
Should you boil it? No, you can’t reduce lead by boiling water. Quite the contrary, boiling will concentrate the level of lead as more water evaporates.
The best solution is to replace any lead pipelines or solders in your house. But, naturally, this solution is not viable for everyone as the renovation can be a bit too costly.
Secondly, if your town has aged lead pipes, it’s simply out of the question to hope for a quick replacement.
Thankfully, water filters can easily remove lead. They are inexpensive, readily available and protect your family from lead as well as hundreds of other waterborne contaminants.
Here are the four types of water filtration systems that are capable of reducing lead from water.
Keep in mind, each is designed for a different set and concentration of contaminants. You can use the results from your water test to decide which one is best suited for your household.
- Reverse osmosis systems: Can remove up to 99% lead.
- Activated carbon filters: Can remove around 90% lead.
- KDF-55 and KDF-85: Can remove up to 98% of water-soluble lead.
- Ion exchange filters (NOT water softeners): Can remove 95% lead and more.
Let’s follow up with a brief outline of how to figure out which of the above types of water filters you should get:
If your water test results highlight multiple contaminants, including salts, pathogens, chemicals, fluoride and heavy metals, a reverse osmosis system is probably your best bet. It is because an RO membrane plus the other filter stages can reject over 99.9% of hundreds of dangerous water impurities and allow almost only water molecules to pass through.
But here’s the catch. An RO system wastes as much as three to four times the water that it later provides. If that makes you cringe, it’s better to look for an alternative.
On the other hand, carbon-based filters and those using KDF are economical and less complicated, but they don’t target as many different contaminants.
Similarly, the effectiveness of ion exchange resin is influenced by the pH level of water. If the pH is far above 7, the filtration process may be substandard.
Other Measures You Can Take
Apart from buying a water filter for your home, here is what you can do to reduce your lead exposure.
- Contact your local water municipality and alert them of the issue. Also inform your neighbors and collectively raise your concern.
- As much as we are against bottled water, if you can’t install a water filter for any reason, you should shift to bottled water for the time being.
- Do not attempt to boil your water, or you’ll just end up concentrating the amount of lead.
- Never use hot water directly from the tap as it dissolves more lead from pipelines.
You can’t see, smell or taste lead in water.
The only way to find out if you’re affected by lead contamination is to test your water supply.
There are different approaches you can take here. We recommend sending a sample to a certified laboratory.
By the way, the most common source of lead in water is an outdated plumbing system. Health effects of long-term exposure should not be taken lightly. After all, lead is a neurotoxin.
If you want to remove the heavy metal you can use 4 types of water filtration: Reverse osmosis, KDF, activated carbon and ion exchange.
- The Best Water Filter for Lead Removal? 10 Reviews + Guide 2023
- Reviews of the Best Rated Lead Water Testers
- Water Masterz Lead Removal Guide
- Does Distillation Remove Lead from Water?
- Is There an Obvious Sign of Lead in Water?
-  https://www.nrdc.org/lead-pipes-widespread-used-every-state
-  https://www.epa.gov/dwreginfo/lead-and-copper-rule
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.