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Get the Lead Out! Dealing With Hazardous Lead Pipes

Roger Diez

Part 3 of 8 in The Old House Web Home Hazards Series

By now everyone is aware that lead is not good for you. Lead poisoning has been attributed to mental retardation, organ failure, premature death, and the fall of the Roman Empire. (The Romans used lead in cookware, plumbing, and lots of other things.) Unfortunately, if you have an older house, you may very well have lead pipes carrying the water in your plumbing system. Water can dissolve small amounts of lead from the inside of these pipes, causing your drinking water to exceed safe standards. If you find you have lead pipes, you will probably have to deal with them.

How Can I Tell if I Have Lead Pipes?

If your home was built after 1950, it is unlikely that you will have lead water pipes. However, if your house was built pre-1950, a simple check is to look at the supply pipe under your kitchen sink. Lead pipes are dark grey and soft, easily scratched metal. If you suspect lead pipes, call a plumber to verify that they are, in fact, lead.

What Can I Do to Remedy the Situation?

If you discover that your home has lead pipes, your first inclination may be to replace them. This is a very costly undertaking. Start with getting your water tested to determine if there really is a problem. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines, the Maximum Contaminate Level for lead is 0.015 milligrams per liter. If your water has a higher level of lead than this, your pipes must be replaced for health reasons. If the level is between 0.015mg/L and zero, the choice is yours. However, there may be other considerations that indicate pipe replacement, such as low water flow due to small diameter pipes.

How Do I Proceed if the Pipes Need Replacing?

The best thing to do is to call a several reputable plumbing contractors and get estimates. This is not a job the average homeowner should tackle. The plumber should be able to replace your old lead pipes with modern materials such as medium density polyethylene (MDPE). Be prepared to write a fairly large check.

Once you have ensured that your drinking water is safe, either through testing or pipe replacement, you are free to complete the rest of the renovation work on your older home. Good luck.

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