Your Brass or Copper Pipes Could Contain Lead—Here’s What to Know

Becca Stokes
Written by Becca Stokes
Updated November 29, 2021
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If you have an older home, checking for lead is an important safety measure, even if you have copper and brass pipes

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Few things are more important in our homes than the water flowing through the pipes. This water is what we drink, bathe with, and cook with, so if there’s a risk of lead, it’s important to find out and tackle the problem immediately. As it turns out, copper and lead pipes can contain lead, especially if your home is more than a few decades old.

Lead in Drinking Water

Lead is a naturally occurring metal that has long been used in piping. Although you may think you’re in the clear if your pipes aren’t lead, you can even find lead in older copper and brass piping, where it was commonly used as solder. Older brass pipes and fixtures can also contain fairly high levels of lead.

Just how harmful lead can depend on exposure levels. Even low lead exposure can be detrimental over time, especially in children, including causing damage to brain development, according to the Mayo Clinic. High levels of lead exposure can cause issues with the kidneys and nervous system or, in extreme cases, even death.

The EPA’s Lead Ban

In 1978, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of lead in paint and varnish. Before the EPA issued this ban, lead was considered a low-risk metal, but the EPA’s decision exposed the perils of lead and had many people questioning what type of metal their pipes were.

In 1991, the EPA limited just how much lead could be present in plumbing pipes in an effort to control exposure. This act was known as the Lead and Copper Rule. The rule has since gone through several revisions and updates and more are being considered, according to the EPA. Today, water services are required to monitor customer taps and must take action to control corrosion if a certain amount of lead or copper is found in 10% of customer taps sampled.

If you have copper pipes, you should have a pro test for both copper and lead in your home’s water.

How to Find Out What Your Pipes Are Made of

According to the EPA, homes built before 1986 are more likely to have pipes that contain lead in some form. If you are concerned that your pipes may contain lead or even be made of lead, you should hire a local plumbing professional to come and inspect them and conduct a water test. You can also check for yourself right now. While this amateur test can give you a quick gut check, you should always follow up with a pro after, especially if you have any concerns or questions.

  • Find the water service line (which brings water into your home). It’s usually in the basement near the water meter.

  • Expose a small metal area by scraping away the top layer of paint (if needed) to serve as a test area for the pipe—testing near the point where it enters the home and near the meter is best.

  • Use a screwdriver to scratch at the pipe’s surface.

  • If the scraped area reveals shiny silver, it is likely lead.

  • Double-check this by placing a magnet there—lead is not magnetic.

  • If the scraped area is copper, like a penny, the line is copper; magnets still won’t stick, though.

  • If the scraped area stays a dullish gray, it is likely a galvanized steel pipe.

  • Then, check the solder (binding between pipes) using the same method. Even if your pipes are copper or brass, lead could still be present here. If the scraped area is shiny, the solder likely contains lead.

No matter your results, if you have older pipes, it’s still important to have a plumbing professional come and examine your pipes and test for lead levels.

How to Reduce Your Lead Exposure

Filling pan with water at kitchen sink
Photo: WavebreakmediaMicro / Adobe Stock

The EPA has issued several guidelines for helping you reduce the risk of lead exposure in your pipes. If you suspect your pipes contain lead and can’t have them treated right away, try these tips.

  • Let the water run until cold if the faucet has been used more than six hours earlier. This process should take under 30 seconds.

  • Only use cold water when possible, as the EPA has found higher amounts of lead in hot water.

  • Regularly test your water for lead (contact your local water supplier for test kits).

  • Replace older pipes with new pipes made of synthetic material.

How Much Does It Cost to Replace Lead Pipes?

It costs $1,570 on average to have a new water main installed. Most homeowners pay between $610 and $2,570. Expect to spend anywhere from $50 to $250 per linear foot, depending on length, material, depth and accessibility. You’ll also need a city permit which varies in price from location to location; consult your plumbing with further permit questions.

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