Ever since news broke of lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, Mich., Northwesterners, like people all over the United States, have wondered, "Does my water have lead in it, too?"
The short answer is, probably not.
Municipal water suppliers that serve more than 25 people must comply with the federal Safe Water Drinking Act, in which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets lead limits at 15 parts per billion. Your local utility can show you its "Consumer Confidence Report," which lists contaminants found during routine testing.
In areas where the water is acidic, water districts treat it to raise its pH. That helps minimize the threat that it could cause lead to leach out of older plumbing that contains brass fittings, corroded galvanized pipe, or lead solder. (That's the important step that was missed in Flint.)
How lead can make it to your tap
Lead is most likely to turn up in pre-1986 neighborhoods and homes, which may have been plumbed with lead-containing faucets, fixtures, pipes, and fittings. But as recently as 2014, structures could be called lead-free even if their plumbing contained 8% lead (the standard has since changed to 0.25%). Often, it's not the whole house that's affected, but individual fixtures, as was the case in a handful of schools across Washington and Oregon that tested positive for lead-contaminated water. (Most if not all have been addressed.)
How to test your home's water for lead
If you're concerned, reach out to your municipal water supplier. Some will test your home for free to find out if any contaminants are getting into your water after it leaves the treatment plant.
If it can't provide a test or you get your water from a private source, you can pursue testing on your own through a state-certified lab. Call the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline weekdays at 800-426-4791 to find a lab in your area. Costs will depend on how much testing you want to do (you can screen for additional contaminants besides lead).
Or, for some quick peace of mind, pick up a do-it-yourself home test kit for as little as $10 at most home-improvement stores.
When you test, follow the manufacturer's instructions and do it first thing in the morning, using water that's been sitting in your pipes all night. If lead is leaching from your plumbing, it will show up in its highest concentrations then.
If the test is positive, you'll need to pinpoint and remedy the source of lead. That could mean changing out a single fixture all the way to a installing a whole-house water filtration system. Until you've fixed the problem, use bottled water or, at minimum, don't use your tap water without running it full blast on cold for at least five minutes to flush out the pipe. (Don't use hot; it boosts lead levels.) It's safe to bathe in water that contains lead because you can't absorb lead through your skin, but it's dangerous for any kind of food preparation and even brushing your teeth.
Keeping lead in perspective
Lead is worrisome because, particularly in children, it can cause a host of neurologic and developmental problems. But it's important to keep in mind that, even with all the headlines, water accounts for only 20% of lead exposure nationwide. The most likely sources of contamination remain lead-tainted soil and dust from older homes painted with flaking lead-based paint.