Lead Contamination of Water

Lead is a metal that can have life-long health impacts, especially for children. MORE

If there is lead in pipes, fixtures, or the solder that connects the pipes, drinking water may become contaminated. Public water system officials looking for information can visit the Compliance with Revised Lead and Copper Rule and Lead Poisoning Prevention Act webpage.

How does lead get into drinking water?

As plumbing materials age, they begin to wear away (called corrosion). If they are made with lead, it can get into the drinking water. When water sits still and remains in contact with plumbing materials containing lead for a period of time, the lead may dissolve into the water. If water has not been used for several hours – for example first thing in the morning or when you get home from school or work – it may have elevated levels of lead.

Why does lead in drinking water matter?

Exposure to lead can cause long-term health problems, especially for children younger than six years old and people who are pregnant. People can be exposed to lead by drinking contaminated water or eating food prepared with contaminated water. Lead can hurt a child's brain and nervous system and slow down growth and development. People exposed to lead as children can have lifelong difficulties with learning and behavior and may have trouble paying attention. Even small amounts of lead can harm a child. Lead poisoning is preventable.

How is lead in drinking water monitored?

Public water systems are regulated by the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH). Public water systems test water for lead on an ongoing basis. If lead is found at a level of concern, they are required to issue a public notice to consumers.

RIDOH conducted drinking water testing in public schools and state licensed child care centers in 2017 and again in 2023.

What actions are public water systems taking to reduce lead in drinking water?

Under the Revised Lead and Copper Rule and the Rhode Island Lead Poisoning Prevention Act public water systems are required to complete service line inventories to determine if the water pipes contain lead by October 16, 2024. Service lines supply drinking water from the water main to the building. If a service line is made with lead, lead can get into the drinking water. If lead lines are found, they will be replaced.

What will the service line inventory mean for me?

If a lead service line is identified during the inventory, the public water system will notify customers about the potential for lead exposure and how to reduce it when lead service lines are identified.

As part of the inventory process, public water systems will inspect service lines to determine if they contain lead. A representative from the public water systems may request entry to buildings to fully inspect the service lines. Please contact your public water system if you have any questions.

What you should do to lower lead in drinking water

Read all notices from your public water system and follow guidance and instructions

Public water systems will send a notice to all occupants at an address when there is a potential for exposure to lead in drinking water, including: when routine testing shows lead is above the action level; when lead service lines are discovered or disturbed; and when a request to inspect or replace a service line is refused by a property owner. These notices have guidance for reducing your exposure to lead as well as instructions to request an NSF-approved filter for removing lead from drinking water.

You can also contact your public water system to find out if they have determined you have a lead service line.

Treat the water

NSF-approved water filters can remove lead from water. This water is safe to use for drinking and cooking.

If a lead service line has been identified, you can contact your public water system to request a water filter. The public water system will provide a filter pitcher or point-of-use device and six months of filter replacements, along with filter use instructions. Follow the instructions for the installation (if applicable), use, and maintenance of any filter. Change out replacement cartridges according to the filter instructions.

Some types of in-home water treatment systems can have an impact on lead levels in water. Water softeners and reverse osmosis units will remove lead from water but can make the water more corrosive to lead solder and plumbing by removing certain minerals. The installation of these treatment units at the point of entry into homes with lead plumbing should only be done under supervision of a qualified water treatment professional.

Flush the pipes

Flushing is a proven method that can lower lead levels in water. Anyone who has been notified of a lead service line should flush their pipes. Flushing is an effective tool even if you have a filter.

How to flush pipes:

Run the cold water for 3 to 5 minutes to flush out lead. Do this before using the water for drinking or cooking any time the water has gone unused for more than six hours. Lead can build up in water when it sits still in the pipes. Flushing the pipes (or letting the cold water run before using it) will remove the water that may contain higher lead levels.

How to flush pipes after construction work disturbed lead service lines:

When construction work that disturbs lead service lines has been done, small pieces of lead can enter the plumbing of the building. This can result in high lead levels in the water for up to three months. More comprehensive flushing to remove lead is important after this construction. Follow the steps below once every two weeks for three months after construction.

Prepare to flush:

  • Always use cold water.
  • Determine which water faucets can be run without overflowing the sink, tub, etc.
  • Remove aerators from all faucets.
    • If aerators cannot be removed, do not use this faucet for flushing.
    • If a shower is attached to a bathtub, use the bathtub faucet. If a shower is not attached to bathtub and it is possible to remove showerhead, remove it.
  • Ensure drains are open and clear.

Turn on all taps:

  • Starting in the basement or lowest floor first, open the cold faucets.
    • Open cold faucets completely so the water comes out at the fastest rate possible. Leave the water running.
  • Working your way up through the building, repeat the process of opening the cold faucets on each floor of the house.
  • Let water run for 30 minutes.
    • Some water can be saved in buckets to wash cars or water flower gardens. Do not use this water for drinking, cooking, or for vegetable gardens.
  • After 30 minutes have passed, close the faucets in the order that you opened them.
  • Clean aerators and showerheads and put them back on the faucets.

Cook with cold water and clean aerators/screens

Some steps that anyone can take to reduce lead exposure are:

  • Use cold water for preparing baby formula, even if you have a filter. If lead is in the water, or the building has a lead service line it is recommended that bottled or filtered water be used for drinking and preparing baby formula. If you need hot water, draw water from the cold tap and then heat it.
  • Use cold water for cooking, even if you have a filter. Because lead from lead-containing plumbing materials and pipes can dissolve into hot water more easily than cold water, never drink, cook, or prepare beverages using hot water from the tap. Boiling water can kill bacteria, viruses, and other disease-causing organisms, but it will not reduce lead levels.
  • Remove and clean aerators/screens on plumbing fixtures, even if you have a filter. Aerator screens are located at the tip of faucets. Over time, particles and sediment can collect in the aerator screen.

Consider blood lead level testing for children

  • If you find out your child has been exposed to an elevated level of lead in their water at school or at home, contact your child’s doctor to discuss if a blood lead test is necessary.
  • Make sure your child has two blood lead tests by 36 months (one screening by 18 months and the second screening at least 9 months after) and an annual lead screening until the age of six.
  • Learn more about scheduling testing and interpreting the results on the Lead Poisoning Information for Parents webpage.

Know your tenant rights under the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act

As a tenant, you can request the property owner have the service line (pipe) to your building inspected for lead. If the service line is found to contain lead, you may request the property owner have the service line replaced. If the property owner refuses or does not respond to your request, you may make a second request. The property owner has 60 days to respond to your second request. If they refuse or fail to respond to your second request, you can choose to end your lease. Under the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act, the property owner cannot keep your security deposit because you chose to end your lease. If you have questions about this matter, contact the Center for Drinking Water Quality by calling 401-222-6867 or emailing DOH.RIDWQ@health.ri.gov.

How to find out if you have a lead service line

Contact your public water system

  • Contact your public water system to find out if they have determined you have a lead service line (pipe). To find out your water system, check your water bill. If you do not receive a water bill, you can ask your landlord for this information.

If the service line material is not known, evaluate your drinking water's risk of lead contamination

Older buildings are more likely to have lead in the plumbing. If your home or building was built or plumbed before 1987, you could have lead-soldered copper pipes. Newer buildings may also be at risk. Plumbing that is lead-free, including brass, can still legally contain some lead, up to 0.25% as of 2014. Before 2014, the legal limit of lead content in lead-free plumbing was 8%.

  • To determine the material of your service line yourself, locate the line coming into your water meter. Scratch it with a file: if it shines like a penny, it is made of copper; if it shines like a nickel, it is made of lead. If it does not look like a penny or a nickel, it may be galvanized or plastic. You can watch a demonstration of this test from Providence Water, or follow along with the online Protect Your Tap guide (available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese).If you determine that the service line is lead or galvanized, you should notify your public water system and follow the steps in the section What you should do to lower lead in drinking water. Your public water system may request entry to the building to confirm the material of the service line.

Consider testing for lead in drinking water

  • If you receive water from a public water system, the water system regularly tests the water for lead. However, since the source of the lead can be plumbing inside your building, you may choose to have the water at home tested.
  • If you want to have your water tested, contact your water supplier to see if free testing is available. If you have a private well or your water supplier does not provide testing, you can have your water tested by a State-certified lab. Learn more on RIDOH’s website.
  • Lead-based paint is common in houses built before 1978. If you are concerned about lead in your home, you can have your home inspected by a licensed lead inspector. Learn more on RIDOH’s website.

Take action based on the lead test results

  • Do not use water for cooking or drinking if test results show higher than 15 parts per billion (ppb) of lead. Contact your water supplier.
  • If test results show 15 ppb or lower of lead, take the actions listed in the What you should do to lower lead in drinking water section above.
  • Schools and businesses that have tested for lead in drinking water should follow guidance from RIDOH to lower lead levels.