July 23, 2018
Woman tap water
Wellness Tip

New Tool to Get Lead out of Water

by Peter Jaret  

The scandal of lead-tainted tap water in Flint, Mich., has made many of us wonder what’s coming out of our taps. The Flint tragedy occurred for several reasons. Many older homes there still have service lines made of lead, which deliver water from street pipes into the house. When officials switched to using highly corrosive water from the Flint River to cut costs, the water began to leach lead from the pipes. Dangerously high levels of the metal, which can cause developmental problems such as learning disabilities, began to flow through taps.

No one knows exactly how many residences across the country still have lead service lines. To help homeowners and water departments find out, environmental health scientist Charlotte Smith, PhD, and student Dylan Avery at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health have developed a simple but powerful web-based tool that uses a combination of geographic information system (GIS) technology and crowd sourcing to create maps of lead service lines.

"By answering two simple questions, a homeowner can determine if their service line is lead," Smith says. "First, is the service line gray and shiny when scratched or scraped? And second, does a magnet stick to the service line? If the answer to question 1 is yes, and the answer to question 2 is no, the pipe is made of lead."

A third, optional question asks whether a licensed plumber has indicated that the pipe is lead.

You can access the Lead Line Locator at www.tinyurl.com/leadlinelocator. Enter your home address and answers to the two simple questions, and the information is used to automatically build a database and map, which will be viewable at the Lead Line Locator website. The website will be reviewed on a monthly basis in order to update the maps.

Having lead service lines doesn't necessarily mean your drinking water is contaminated. Water departments can treat water so that it won't leach out lead. Still, it's important for homeowners and utilities to know where lead service pipes exist, in order to either replace them or ensure that water is treated to prevent leaching.

"Over time, work records of service line installations often get lost, so no one really knows the extent of potential problems," Smith says. "This website puts the power of information into homeowners' hands and makes the information easily available to local utilities."

Also see Hidden Lead in Your Home.