Recent media coverage of water quality issues in Flint, MI, has brought concerns over lead contamination to many people’s minds. The primary cause of the water quality concerns in Flint appears to have been a failure to maintain corrosion control – a basic principle of water delivery (after disinfection/treatment).
In San Francisco, we have been a model utility in lead abatement for decades.
- All lead pipes and service lines were removed from the San Francisco retail service area over 2 decades ago.
- The San Francisco Water Department replaced more than 7000 lead service lines in 1980s.
- We discontinued the use of lead joints in our distribution system
- We began lead monitoring in 1992 (in adherence with the Lead & Copper Rule, one of the US EPA’s National Primary Drinking Water Regulations)
- Sometimes minor fittings or joints with some lead materials are discovered in older parts of our system; when discovered they are replaced.
- Our excellent corrosion control practices eliminate any exposure to these minor lead surfaces.
- San Francisco’s corrosion control practices are optimized to minimize the potential for lead contamination.
What is Lead and how is it used?
How will I know if Lead is in my drinking water?
Lead is a metal found in natural deposits as ores containing other elements. It is sometimes used in household plumbing materials or in water service lines used to bring water from the main to the home. See how to identify and purchase lead-free faucets.
Why is Lead being regulated?
In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. This law requires EPA to determine safe levels of chemicals in drinking water which do or may cause health problems. These non-enforceable levels, based solely on possible health risks and exposure, are called Maximum Contaminant Level Goals, which are set at zero because EPA believes this level of protection would not cause any potential health problems.
How will Lead be detected in and removed from my drinking water?
Since lead contamination generally occurs from corrosion of household lead pipes, it cannot be directly detected or removed by the water system. EPA is requiring water systems to control the corrosiveness of their water if the level of lead at home taps exceeds an Action Level. The Action Level for lead has been set at 15 parts per billion (ppb) because EPA believes, given present technology and resources, this is the lowest level to which water systems can reasonably be required to control this contaminant should it occur in drinking water at their customers home taps.
These drinking water standards and the regulations for ensuring these standards are met, are called National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. All public water supplies must abide by these regulations. If contaminant levels are found to be consistently above the Action level, your water supplier must take steps to reduce the amount of lead so that it is consistently below that level. Corrosion control has been approved by EPA for controlling lead.
If the levels of lead exceed the Action Level, the system must notify the public via newspapers, radio, TV and other means. Customers will be informed of what they can do at home to lower their exposure to lead. Additional actions, such as providing alternative drinking water supplies, may be required to prevent serious risks to public health.
Have your water tested for lead
We removed all known lead service lines in the 1980s and have been replacing brass meters with lead-free meters since 2002. However, some homes in San Francisco may have increased levels of lead in their tap water caused by deterioration of household plumbing materials that contain lead. Infants and young children are typically at the greatest health risk. If you are concerned about elevated lead levels in your water, flush your tap for 30 seconds to 2 minutes before using the water, whenever the tap has not been used for several hours or have it tested.
Please complete the Lead Analysis Application and send it along with payment to:
What are the health effects?
SFPUC Water Quality Division
Environmental Services Section
Attn: Lead Program Coordinator
1657 Rollins Road
Burlingame, CA 94010
Short- and Long-term effects: Lead can cause a variety of adverse health effects when people are exposed to it at levels above the MCL for relatively short periods of time. These effects may include interference with red blood cell chemistry, delays in normal physical and mental development in babies and young children, slight deficits in the attention span, hearing, and learning abilities of children, and slight increases in the blood pressure of some adults.
Long-term effects: Lead has the potential to cause the following effects from a lifetime exposure at levels above the MCL: stroke and kidney disease; cancer.
How much Lead is produced and released to the environment?
Lead may occur in drinking water either by contamination of the source water used by the water system, or by corrosion of lead plumbing or fixtures. Corrosion of plumbing is by far the greatest cause for concern. All water is corrosive to metal plumbing materials to some degree. Grounding of household electrical systems to plumbing may also exacerbate corrosion. Over time, lead-containing plumbing materials will usually develop a scale that minimizes further corrosion of the pipe.
What happens to Lead when it is released to the environment?
When released to land, lead binds to soils and does not migrate to ground water. In water, it binds to sediments. It does not accumulate in fish, but does in some shellfish, such as mussels.
Learn more about your drinking water!
The EPA strongly encourages people to learn more about their drinking water, and to support local efforts to protect and upgrade the supply of safe drinking water. Your water bill or telephone books government listings are a good starting point. Your local water supplier can give you a list of the chemicals they test for in your water, as well as how your water is treated.
For help in locating these agencies or for information on drinking water in general, call: EPAs Safe Drinking Water Hotline: (800) 424-5323.