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Drinking Water Safety

Common questions about lead and drinking water

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​What is lead?

Lead is a substance that is found naturally in soil, food, and air. Lead has many industrial uses and has been used in plumbing and water service lines (pipes that supply your house with water) since the late 1880s.

Lead can get into drinking water from lead service lines and plumbing, but most people are exposed to lead from other sources.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​How does lead get into my drinking water?

Lead can get into water from the main line of a supply system (water-main), service lines, and other plumbing parts that contain lead (like pipes, solder, and fixtures).

The most common source of lead is pipes that were used to bring water to homes built before 1960. These lead pipes stopped being used in the late 1950s, so older homes (generally ones built before 1960) are more likely to have lead parts.

How else might I be exposed to lead?​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Over the last 30 years, the number of people exposed to lead has gotten lower because of restrictions to using it in gas, paint, and solder (material used to join together metals).

  • Lead hasn’t been used 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 isn’t used at all.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​How does lead affect my health?

Being exposed to lead can affect brain development in babies and young children.

Lead exposure can also cause problems with heart, kidney, and reproductive health in babies, children, and adults.

Who has the highest risk of health effects because of lead exposure?​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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 that has been prepared with tap water that contains lead are at a high risk of being exposed to lead. Because these babies aren’t eating other foods yet, the lead in water makes up more of their total food and drink intake than it does for older children and adults.

If you are pregnant, you can pass lead to your unborn baby. Lead can be present in breastmilk. If you breastfeed, it’s important to lower your lead exposure as much as you can.

Should I test my water for lead?​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

If you live in a municipality (city or town), you can contact your municipality or water utility for more information.

If you have a private water system like a well, you may wish to contact Alberta Health Services ​Environmental Public Health for advice and more information.

Learn more about testing your drinking water in Alberta.

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

Yes. Alberta follows the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality set by Health Canada for lead. The standard for lead is 5 micrograms per litre (0.005 mg/L​). This standard is called the maximum acceptable concentrati​​​on (MAC), or the highest amount of a metal in drinking water that is safe for a person to drink.

This guideline is a protective (conservative) estimate. It considers how much lead in drinking water can contribute to a child’s total exposure to lead from all sources.

What should I do if there are high levels of lead in my drinking water?​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

If your water has more than 5 micrograms per litre (0.005 mg/L) of lead, babies, children younger than 6 years old, and pregnant women must not drink the water without a water filtration device. They should use water from a safe source, like a municipal water system or bottled water, instead.

If you’re pregnant or have children younger than 6 years old who have been drinking the water, see your doctor or healthcare provider for follow-up.

To remove lead from your drinking water, install and maintain a water filtration device.

Until you install a water filter, run your water for 5 minutes before you drink the water or use it to prepare food. And only use cold water from the tap to drink and cook with. Run your water if you haven’t used it for longer than 6 hours, like first thing in the morning or after coming home from work. Lead from pipes can get into water that has been sitting in the pipes for a long time.

Your water filtration device must meet one of these certifications to remove lead:

  • National Sanitation Foundation 053 guideline (NSF-053)
  • American National Standards Institute (ANSI)
  • Underwriters Laboratories (UL)
  • Water Quality Association (WQA), or the Canadian chapter (CWQA)

When using a filtration system, it’s very important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully.

Reverse osmosis (forcing water through a membrane that filters out elements including lead) and distillation systems (a system that boils water, catches the steam, and condenses it to liquid while leaving the lead out) also work to remove lead.

You can also work with your water utility company to replace your lead pipes.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​If I’m breastfeeding, do I need to use filtered water if I have lead service pipes?

If you are breastfeeding, it’s important to lower your lead exposure as much as you can.

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

If I have lead service lines, can I use the water to take a bath, shower, or 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 is not easily absorbed through your skin or mucous​ membranes (like the inside lining of your mouth or nose).

How do I run my water lines to lower my exposure to lead?​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

If you live in a house with lead pipes, even if you are below the maximum acceptable concentration (MAC), it’s a good idea to run (flush) your water lines for 1 minute before using the water to drink or cook with when the water has been sitting in your pipes for longer than 6 hours. After running your water, it will feel cold to the touch. Only use cold water (not hot) from the tap to drink and cook with. Boiling water does not decrease the lead in it.

What about lead in sources other than drinking water?

People are exposed to lead both inside and outside. Lead is 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.

Learn more about lead poisoning.

Where can I learn more?​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

If you have any questions about lead in water, contact Alberta Health Services Environmental Public Health.

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

For information on drinking water quality in Alberta, visit Alberta Environment and Parks.

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Current as of: April 22, 2022

Author: Environmental Public Health, Alberta Health Services