When reports of contaminated drinking water emerge — especially when it’s close to home, like lead being detected at UNC-Chapel Hill — it can be concerning.
You may worry about the water in your own home, wondering if it, too, is contaminated, either with lead or another harmful substance. (The Orange Sewer and Water Authority, or OWASA, which supplies water to UNC, has said that it tests water regularly at its treatment plant and in at-risk single-family homes, and that the results on UNC’s campus “do not mean that lead is present in drinking water across the community.”)
But if you are concerned, or simply curious, about the water in your home, there are resources you can use to test and help determine whether lead is — or could be — present.
We’ve compiled some of those resources and additional information on water testing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Here’s what to know.
How to tell if your home’s pipes are made of lead
Lead, a toxic metal that can cause dangerous, adverse health effects, can’t be seen, tasted or smelled in water.
Lead may enter your home’s water through the pipes that carry the water from the source to your home, or through household plumbing fixtures or the materials used to solder or fit pipes.
Lead pipes — “typically the most significant source of lead in the water” — are more likely to be found in homes built before 1986, the EPA says. If your home was built after 1986, lead pipes are less likely, but lead may still enter your water through pipe solder or fittings.
“The best way to know your risk of exposure to lead in drinking water is to identify the potential sources of lead in your service line and household plumbing,” the CDC says.
Depending on where you get your water, you may be able to identify such sources of lead in your home on your own or with the help of your water system or a plumber.
If you’re unsure whether your home’s pipes are made of lead, you can take these steps to figure it out:
▪ If you receive water from a public water system — such as a city or county system that you pay for water service to your home — you can ask your system directly if there are lead service lines supplying water to your home. They should keep records and be able to provide that information to you upon request.
If your water system tells you that there are lead service lines connected to your home, you can request the system to have your water tested for lead. The CDC also recommends you “ask if there are any programs to assist with removal of the lead service line going to your home.”
Public water systems are also required to regularly test their water for lead and other contaminants, and make the results available for customers. You can request this information, called a Consumer Confidence Report, from your water system to learn more about your water and the system’s efforts to keep it safe. The reports may also be available online.
▪ If you have a private well — or if your public water system was unable to identify whether your home is serviced by lead pipes — you can observe and test your home’s water lines on your own to see if they may be made of lead.
The EPA has additional information and a guide to determining your pipes’ materials available online at epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/protect-your-tap-quick-check-lead-0. A key sign to look for when identifying lead pipes is that the pipe will be easy to scratch and a magnet will not stick to it.
If you think you’ve determined that your home has lead pipes, you may wish to contact a plumber or another expert to confirm the results and ask about water testing or pipe replacement.
Private well owners are responsible for the safety of their water, the EPA says. The agency has resources for well owners available at epa.gov/privatewells.
How to test your home’s water for lead
If you think you’ve determined that your home’s pipes may contain lead, or if you want to skip straight to testing your water, there are several resources available to help you perform tests.
“Testing your drinking water is the only way to confirm if lead is present,” the EPA says.
▪ Though there are at-home test kits that provide quick results available in stores and online, the EPA recommends only using “laboratories that are certified to do drinking water testing.”
The lab will likely have you collect a water sample, following directions they provide, then send the sample to the lab for testing.
Testing costs can range from about $15 to $100, the EPA says, depending on the lab and the extent of testing, but financial assistance may be available.
You can locate a certified laboratory near you using the EPA’s online tool at epa.gov/dwlabcert/contact-information-certification-programs-and-certified-laboratories-drinking-water.
▪ If you receive water from a public water system, the system may provide free water testing upon request.
In the Triangle, OWASA says it provides free testing to customers when requested. To request a test kit, contact OWASA’s laboratory staff at 919-537-4228 or WTPLaboratory@owasa.org.
The city of Durham says city water customers who live in homes built before 1986 and are concerned about their water can request a free sample kit by calling Durham OneCall at 919-560-1200.
Per a 2021 Consumer Confidence Report from the city of Raleigh, the city provides free water testing to city water customers by request. Raleigh water customers may request a kit by calling 919-996-4420 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to reduce or eliminate lead exposure from water
If you find out that your home’s water has detectable levels of lead present, there are steps you can take to reduce or eliminate your exposure to the toxic metal, including having lead pipes and fixtures replaced.
Additional suggestions from the CDC include:
▪ Only drink and use tap water that has been run through a certified “point-of-use” filter that reduces or eliminates lead. More information about these filters is available at info.nsf.org/Certified/DWTU/listings_leadreduction.asp.
▪ Only drink or cook with cold tap water.
“Water that comes out of the tap warm or hot can have higher levels of lead,” the CDC says. “Boiling this water will not reduce the amount of lead in your water.”
▪ Drink and use bottled water that is certified by an independent testing organization. While this may not be a cost-effective solution over a long period of time, it may be a good option for a short period. You can find certified tested water using the search tool at info.nsf.org/certified/bwpi.
▪ The CDC has additional information about lead, health effects and testing available at cdc.gov/nceh/lead/prevention/sources/water.htm.
▪ The EPA has additional information about lead in drinking water available at epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/basic-information-about-lead-drinking-water.