ALL
Health Information and Tools > Health A-Z >  Common Questions about Lead and Drinking Water
Facebook Tweet Email Share

Main Content

Drinking Water Safety

Common Questions about Lead and Drinking Water

​What is lead?

Lead is a substance that is naturally in soil, food, and air. Lead has many industrial uses and has been used in plumbing and water service lines since the late 1880s. Lead can leach into drinking water from lead service lines and plumbing, but most humans are exposed from other sources.

Over the last 30 years, the number of people exposed to lead has really decreased because of restrictions in using it as an additive in gas, paint, and solder. Lead hasn’t been used as an additive in gas since the early 1990s. Lead in paint was banned in the mid-1970s. Lead in solder used for tin cans and drinking water pipes has significantly decreased or it isn’t used at all.

How does lead get in drinking water?

Lead can get in water from water-mains, service lines, and household plumbing parts that contain lead (e.g., pipes, solder, fixtures). The most common source of lead is from lead pipes used to deliver water to homes built before 1960. These pipes were phased out in the late 1950s. Older homes (generally ones built before 1960) are more likely to have lead parts.

Does lead affect health?

Being exposed to lead can affect the brain development of babies and young children. Lead exposure can also cause problems with heart, kidney, and reproductive health in babies, children and adults.

Young children (younger than 6 years old) have the highest risk for health effects because they’re still developing and they absorb lead easier than adults. Babies who have formula or juice prepared with tap water are at risk of being exposed because the water used makes up 40 to 60% of a baby’s intake. The water that older children and adults drink only makes up 10 to 20% of their intake.

Pregnant women can pass lead to their unborn babies. Lead can be present in breastmilk, so it’s important for breastfeeding women to lower lead exposure as much as they can.

Should I test my water for lead?

If you live in a municipality, you can contact your municipality or water utility for further information. If you have a private water system e.g. well, you may wish to contact AHS-EPH for advice and consultation. Water testing information is available at: https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Alberta/Pages/How-to-collect-a-water-sample-for-chemical-testing.aspx

What if my test results say my water has 5 or more micrograms per litre (or 0.005mg/L) of lead?

Babies, children younger than 6 years old, and pregnant women must not drink the tap water without a water filtration device.

  1. For the short-term (until a water filter is installed), run or flush your water lines for 5 minutes before you drink or use the water to prepare food when the water has been sitting in the pipes for longer than 6 hours. Only use cold water from the tap to drink and cook with.
  2. Install and maintain a water filtration device that meets the National Sanitation Foundation 053 guideline (NSF-053), American National Standards Institute (ANSI), Underwriters Laboratories (UL), or Water Quality Association (and Canadian chapter CWAQ) certification to remove lead. When using these systems, it’s very important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully. Reverse osmosis and distillation systems also work to remove lead.
  3. Work with your water utility company to replace the lead pipes.
  4. If you’re pregnant or have children younger than 6 years old, see your doctor for follow-up​.

Do breastfeeding moms need to use filtered water if they have lead service pipes?

Breastfeeding is always the best choice for babies. However, it’s important for breastfeeding women to lower lead exposure as much as they can.

If you’re breastfeeding and your home has lead service pipes, don’t use tap water without a water filtration device. It must meet the National Sanitation Foundation 053 guideline (NSF-053), American National Standards Institute (ANSI), Underwriters Laboratories (UL), or Water Quality Association (and Canadian chapter CWAQ) certification to remove lead.

If I have lead service lines—can I use the water to bath, shower, and wash dishes and clothes?

Yes. You can use the water for all of these activities and you won’t be exposed to lead. Lead in water isn’t easily absorbed through the skin or mucous membranes.

How do I run or flush the water lines to lower my exposure to lead?

It’s a good idea to run or flush your water lines for 1 minute before using the water to drink or cook with when the water has been sitting in the pipes for longer than 6 hours. The water will feel cold to the touch when it has been flushed out. Only use cold water (not hot) from the tap to drink and cook with. Boiling the water does not decrease the lead in it.

Does Alberta have a drinking-water quality standard for lead?

Yes. Alberta follows the Canadian Drinking Water Quality Guideline for lead of 5 micrograms per litre (0.005mg/L) or 5 parts per billion. This guideline is a more protective (conservative) estimate of how much lead in drinking water can contribute to a child’s total exposure to lead from all sources.

What about lead in sources other than drinking water?

People are exposed to lead inside and outside. It‘s in the air, soil, dust, drinking water, food, and many other products. Older homes may have lead-based paint, and people can be exposed if they get paint chips or paint dust in their mouths. Young children can be exposed to lead if they get dirt or dust in their mouth from their hands or other objects.

For More Information

For more information about your water service lines, call your water utility provider.

For information on drinking water quality in Alberta, call Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development at 780-427-2700 (dial 310-0000 first for toll-free access).

Current as of: July 18, 2019

Author: Environmental Public Health, Alberta Health Services