splashing water


Lead is a common, naturally occurring metal found in the environment. Lead seldom occurs naturally in water supplies like rivers and lakes, and is rarely present in water coming from a treatment plant. Lead enters drinking water primarily as a result of corrosion in lead pipes called service lines that connect some older homes to the water system, and in household plumbing that contains lead. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry also notes that "children can be exposed to lead by putting their hands that have touched lead-containing soil or dust into their mouths".

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "Children are exposed to lead in paint, dust, soil, air, and food, as well as drinking water." EPA estimates "drinking water can make up 20% or more of a person’s total exposure to lead. Infants who consume mostly mixed formula can receive 40% to 60% of their exposure to lead from drinking water."

See this animation to better understand how lead can get into water, and what you can do to keep your water safe from lead.

Lead is a concern because it can cause immediate effects at high doses and long-term effects if it builds up in the body over many years. Lead can cause brain and kidney damage in addition to effects on the blood and vitamin D metabolism. Children are more vulnerable to lead exposure because their bodies are smaller, and because they are still developing. Pregnant women and their unborn babies are also at higher risk for negative health effects associated with lead exposure.


If you are concerned that you or a family member may have been exposed to lead, consult with your family doctor or pediatrician to receive a blood test for lead and learn more about the health effects associated with exposure.

The federal Lead and Copper Rule requires all community drinking water systems to regularly test a sample of high-risk homes for lead at the tap. If more than 10% of homes tested have lead concentrations higher than the EPA “action level” of 15 parts per billion, individual water utilities are required to notify area residents. If the lead level remains consistently above the action level, the water supplier must take steps to control corrosion.

Regulation of lead in drinking water is extensive and changing. In January 2021, EPA finalized the Lead and Copper Rule Revisions (LCRR). Water systems must comply with the rule’s provisions by Oct. 16, 2024. Important new requirements that will take effect based on that rule are:

  • Water systems will have a responsibility to alert all their customers if their system exceeds the lead action level. This notice must occur within 24 hours of a system becoming aware it has exceeded the action level.
  • Systems must also make an inventory of all the service lines in their service area available to the public and indicate if that service line is made of lead, a combination of lead followed by galvanized pipe, of another nonlead material, or if the material is not known. The inventory will describe the entire service line including the pipe material on a customer’s property.
  • Based on the inventory, systems must make persons served by the water system at the service connection aware when the service line is made of lead, the combination of lead followed by galvanized pipe, or unknown.

This rule, the LCRR, included additional requirements. After further review, EPA is now proposing to change the requirements further through a proposed “Lead and Copper Rule Improvements.” EPA expects to finalize these revised requirements by October 2024. Systems would begin to meet these expectations by October 2027. The proposed improvements include requiring water systems to:

  • Completely replace all lead service lines the system controls within 10 years following a replacement plan that it makes available to the public
  • Reduce the lead action level to 10 parts per billion
  • Change the data used to calculate compliance with the lead action level to increase the chance that a sample will include lead, especially if the building being sampled has a lead or galvanized service line or plumbing. Many systems will also be required to collect samples for lead from many more homes than are required under practice
  • Warn occupants in advance of field work that would create an opportunity to remove a lead service line entirely and to make sure affected occupants are aware of the risk posed by lead and steps they can take to reduce potential exposure from lead in water
  • When field work will disturb a service line made of lead, or a combination of lead followed by galvanized, a water system must provide those occupants with water filter pitchers or point-of-use devices and six-months of replacement filters cartridges

While the Lead and Copper Rule guides water system actions to manage the corrosivity of water and remove sources of lead under its control, the Safe Drinking Water Act requires manufacturers of plumbing products used in buildings and water systems to be lead-free. Congress has set and then revised the definition of “lead-free.” In 1986 Congress banned the use of lead pipe and set an upper limit on the amount of lead allowed in alloys used in plumbing like brass and bronze. In 2011, Congress reduced that allowable level of lead further in the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act. As of Jan. 4, 2014, for a plumbing product to be sold in the United States for a use where it may come in contact with drinking water it has to meet this standard. EPA relies on testing to certify compliance with this requirement. When plumbing products meet these standards, the product and/or its packaging will contain markings so that plumbers and homeowners can tell the product is lead-free. EPA has a useful fact sheet with these markings.

Water leaving a treatment plant and traveling through water mains is almost always free of lead. However, lead is sometimes present in service lines connecting older homes to the water system or in home fixtures and plumbing. Water systems adjust the water’s chemistry at the treatment plant to minimize the possibility of lead dissolving into the water.

If your drinking water never comes into contact with lead materials, you are not at risk. Most lead materials were effectively banned in the 1980s, so if your home was built after that decade, lead is unlikely to be a concern. If you live in an older structure, there are steps you can take to see if you may be at risk. Contact your water provider to see if it has home testing options available. If not, it can help you find a certified laboratory to test your water.

Your utility may or may not know if you have a lead service line. If not, you can find out yourself or with the help of a licensed plumber. Service lines typically enter the home in the basement or crawl space. If the pipe is lead, it will have a dull finish that shines brightly when scratched with a key or coin. Using a magnet can also help you identify a lead pipe, because even a strong magnet will not cling to lead. A magnet will stick to a galvanized pipe but will not stick to a copper, lead or plastic pipe.

A licensed plumber can inspect both your service line and other materials in contact with your drinking water.

Water systems that deliver soft water, which has fewer dissolved minerals, and water that is more acidic and higher in dissolved oxygen, can be more corrosive, increasing the risk of lead contamination. Watch for frequent leaks, discolored water and stained dishes or clothes, as these are all signs of corrosive water. Also, check with your local water utility to find out more about whether your water is corrosive and what can be done. You can also find out if your public supply system contains any lead piping.

Review Denver Water's illustration on the most common source of lead in treated drinking water.

If you're concerned about lead in your drinking water, you can take several steps to limit possible exposure. Read AWWA's Lead - Keep Your Water Safe brochure for guidance.

  • Testing at the tap is the only way to measure the lead levels in your home or workplace. You can’t see, smell or taste lead in your water. If you choose to have your tap water tested, be sure to use a properly certified laboratory. Testing usually costs between $20 and $100. To find a state certified laboratory, contact a state certification officer.
  • Flush your tap water. Flushing the tap is particularly important when the faucet has gone unused for more than a few hours. It takes time for lead to dissolve into water, so the first water drawn from the tap in the morning or after a long period of non-use can contain higher levels of lead. Flushing clears standing water from your plumbing and home service line to ensure you are getting drinking water from the main, where lead is rarely present.
  • Remember, you must flush each drinking water faucet after long periods of non-use for this strategy to be effective. Use the flushed water for non-potable purposes such as watering plants or washing dishes.

  • Use only cold water for cooking or drinking. Lead leaches more easily into hot water than cold water.
  • Boiling water DOES NOT remove lead.
  • After moving into a new home, remove faucet strainers and rinse them to remove any debris. This should be done periodically to remove accumulated debris as well.

Treatment and Removal Devices

Some home treatment devices remove lead, but not all do. In order to make a well-informed and cost-effective decision, consider:

  • Checking with your water system or consumer confidence report to learn if your household is at risk
  • Identifying a device that has been independently certified to remove lead.

Look for devices that have been certified against NSF/ANSI Standard 53 for total lead removal and NSF/ANSI Standard 42 for fine particulates (Class I). There are a number of certification organizations. NSF International, Water Quality Association, Underwriters Laboratories and CSA International all certify home treatment products for removal of contaminants. If a home treatment device is used, it is very important to follow the manufacturer's operation and maintenance instructions carefully to make sure the device functions properly.

If you get your drinking water from a private well, you should have your water tested by a certified laboratory at least once a year. A 2020 study found children that live in homes that use private wells were 25% more likely to have elevated lead levels in their blood than children served by community water systems.

You can find information on how to sample for lead in your drinking water by contacting your state water laboratory certification officer. Contact information for your state can be found at EPA’s drinking water lab certification page. Additional information about well water testing from EPA is available on its private drinking water well FAQ page.