Lead has played a significant role in plumbing since its invention during the Roman Empire. In fact, the word plumbing comes from the Latin word, “plumbum” which lends its initials to the chemical symbol for lead, Pb. As a naturally occurring metal which is stable and malleable, it makes sense that it would work well for transporting water. Sadly, due to its poisonous nature, continued use is dangerous. While cities are supposed to no longer use lead pipes for water transportation, some older homes may have traces of this harmful substance lurking in the basements and under their foundations.
The Dangers of Lead Plumbing
As more information becomes available, the amount of lead found in everyday objects has decreased since the 1970s. Lead exposure has many adverse side effects. Currently, there is no safe blood lead level (BLL) for children. Infants and toddlers have a less mature blood-brain barrier, meaning it is more accessible for absorption of lead into the blood. Children exposed to as little as ten µg/dL can experience IQ loss and other delayed neurobehavioral development.
With adults, the adverse effects include reproductive issues including abnormal sperm morphology and decreased sperm count as well as lactation problems in new mothers. Studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determine that lead is a likely carcinogen in adults. Adults with increased BLL may also see a decrease in nephron, leading to renal failure. (Asbestos cement pipes are another health threat. Learn more in How to Tell if Your Home Has Asbestos Cement Pipes.)
Signs Your Home Has Lead Pipe
The first place to start when trying to determine if your home still has lead pipes is by finding the service junction. For homes with basements, this is your starting point. Homes without basements tend to have the service junction located on the lowest floor, the corner closest to the road.
After locating the service line, a visual inspection can identify the pipe composition. Gray matte coloring is an indication the pipeline may be lead. To further determine whether the material is lead, scrape the pipe with a screwdriver. If the line is soft and turns shiny, then you have a lead pipe service junction. Additionally, a magnet will not stick to a lead pipe.
Even if you do not have a lead service junction, it does not mean your home is lead-free. Some cities use lead lines to go from the main line to curb. The line under your yard from the curb to your home may also be lead. You can check city records to determine what material was used.
The age of your home also affects whether you have lead pipes. Owners of older homes are more likely to find lead in their property. Even if the lines are updated, there may be lead in the solder used to connect the pipes. U.S. standards did not require all solder be lead-free until 1986.
Another place lead may be contaminating your home is in your faucets. Most fittings use ceramic, plastic or steel. However, some may have brass in them, which may contain trace amounts of lead. Brass valves manufactured between 1975 and 2014 may have up to eight percent lead. Knowing when your fixtures were manufactured can help determine if lead content is possible.
While cities are required to conform to national safety standards, older areas may not have replaced all their lead lines. The best way to ensure that lead is not coming into your home is to have a trained professional conduct a water test. (To learn about municipal projects to reduce lead, see Using Trenchless Technology to Replace City Lead Pipes.)
Trenchless Techniques to Replace Lead Pipes
Replacing lead pipes is important to help ensure the health of your family. However, as most lead pipes are located either under the ground running through your front yard or under the slab of your home, the use of trenchless rehabilitation techniques may be a more cost-effective solution.
For older lead pipes, pipe bursting may be the desired technique for rehabilitation. With this solution, workers use a bursting head to break the existing line into small pieces. Workers then either pull or push a new pipe into place through the current line.
While this is considered a trenchless technique, it is not entirely trenchless. It does require the digging of launching and ending pits. These holes are small in comparison to an open trench, however, and are for the sole purpose of launching and retrieving the bursting head and old pipe pieces.
Pipe bursting does remove lead lines entirely. However, it is not always the best choice for rehabilitation projects. Instead, workers may decide to line the existing pipe with a fabric liner impregnated with resin. This liner is known as cured-in-place pipe (CIPP). Workers begin by accessing the pipeline at a service junction. They pull the lining through the section of lead pipe in need of lining. Once in place, workers expand the CIPP liner using either air or water. This expansion helps to conform the liner to the shape of the pipeline. Finally, workers cure the liner using hot water, ultraviolet light or steam. In some cases, workers allow the ambient air temperature to cure the line.
Since CIPP is flexible enough to conform to any pipeline shape, it is ideal for use in sections with bends or joints. The new line created is a single solid piece.
Sometimes CIPP is not the best choice when it comes to lining the lead pipe. Instead, use of sliplining is better. As with CIPP, workers push or pull the liner into place via an access junction. However, once it is in place, it does not conform to fill the entire space. Workers must fill the void between the liner and the existing pipe using grout. Sliplining is not ideal for repairing the main water line, as it does narrow the pipe diameter and restrict the water flow.
When determining if your home potentially has lead pipes, it is important to know when the structure was built. Older homes are prone to lead plumbing, while newer homes do not have the same issue. A water sample test conducted by a trained professional can help determine what levels are present in your water supply. Trenchless rehabilitation techniques allow homeowners to repair their lead pipe issues without damaging their lawn or home.