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

Becca Stokes
Written by Becca Stokes
Reviewed by Joseph Wood
Updated July 29, 2022
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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.

How to Find Out If Your Pipes Have Lead

According to the EPA, homes built before 1986 are more likely to have pipes that contain lead. If you are concerned about lead in your pipes, hire a local plumbing professional to come and inspect them and conduct a water test. A quick DIY test can also determine what your pipes are made of. Even with this “gut check” test, make sure to have a pro follow-up with a more thorough inspection, especially if you have any concerns or questions.

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

  • With a screwdriver, expose a small metal area by scraping away the top layer of paint (if needed) to test—try to expose an area near where it enters the home or close to the meter. 

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

  • To confirm, place a magnet on the surface—lead is not magnetic. 

  • If the scraped area is copper, magnets still won’t stick.

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

  • Finally, test the solder (binding between pipes) using the same method, as copper and brass pipes can still have lead solders. If the scraped area is shiny, the solder likely contains lead.

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 1986, the EPA limited just how much lead could be present in plumbing pipes to control exposure via the Lead and Copper Rule. The rule has since gone through several revisions to determine when people need to take reparative action and how they must notify and protect the community from harmful levels of lead. 

In short: if you have copper pipes, you should have a pro test for copper and lead in your water. If your home has an older plumbing system and fixtures, consider an inspection.

Consider Testing for Lead in Drinking Water and Copper Pipes

A naturally occurring metal, lead was commonly used in piping before the EPA ban. Although you may think you’re in the clear if your pipes aren’t lead, it was also used to solder older copper and brass piping—even older brass pipes and fixtures are at risk. This is because the ban included provisions that allowed lead use in certain fixtures such as shower valves and other non-drinking-water taps—up to 0.25%. Even a brand new home may have fixtures which used lead in some part of the manufacturing, so a drinking water test is always a good idea.

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

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.

  • If you haven’t used your faucet, let the water run until cold. This process should take under 30 seconds.

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

  • Regularly test your water quality (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?

A new water main costs $1,570 on average to install though 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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