Taking the Lead on Lead Reduction

About once a year, you should receive a water quality report in your utility bill. They all appear a little different, depending on where you live, but they contain the same core information. If you look closer, that report will reveal several characteristics used in potable water design. Potable water is simply defined as water that is drinkable.

The Safe Drinking Water Act of the late 1970s established regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the states to meet a minimum standard of water quality. In 1986, under President Reagan, the act was amended so that public water supply systems must meet recommended maximum allowable limits for certain contaminants. It also began required testing of the water at least once every handful of years. President Bill Clinton further defined this by requiring water reports to be published and made public, beginning in the 1990s. The act was again amended as Senate Bill S.3874, effective January 4 of this year. More information covering the history of the bill can be found on the EPA website.

Let’s focus on one of the items published in a water quality report that threatens the drinkability of our water. Lead is a malleable metal used in many products, but is hazardous to humans when consumed. In fact, the word “plumbing” originates from the Latin meaning for lead, “plumbum.” In the present day, materials most notably associated with having lead content are brass and bronze alloys that are commonly used in valves, backflow preventers, pressure regulators, and pumps.

Senate Bill S.3874, mentioned above, is also known as “The Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act.” It further orders reduction of the lead content in plumbing products with enforceable penalties for selling or installing products that do not meet the standard for potable water applications.

Lead has been known to cause high blood pressure in adults, cognitive development issues in children, and can even be passed from a mother to an unborn child. Lead can be detrimental to every system in your body. Common symptoms, such as fatigue, insomnia, headache, hyperactivity, and anxiety, can seem like everyday ailments caused by stress, diet or caffeine intake. Diagnosis is only achieved by conducting the proper blood test.

The potential for contamination can be just about anywhere you go, including hospitals, work, restaurants, and your home. You may have purchased an older home with corroding lead pipes or know someone who lives in a home with lead paint. Your children may attend a daycare in a building that is outdated. There are numerous ways you can be exposed to lead, and a lot of them can be related to what we do every day in the building construction and engineering industries.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a comprehensive “Lead in Construction” information guide that is a good read for anyone in the construction field looking to identify hazards and ways to develop good habits for protection.

On the design side of our business, this requires further inspection of project specifications and material and equipment schedules. California and Louisiana are the first states to require third party certification of plumbing products. In addition, some manufacturers are taking it upon themselves to upgrade their catalogs with items meeting NSF/ANSI 61 Standard: Drinking Water System Components – Health effects. That isn’t taking the easy way out either, due to stricter requirements adopted in 2012 by the standard.

A few companies seem to have hit the ground running in 2013 in order to prepare for the change that hit early this year. Those companies include Watts Industries, who has the weareleadfree.net domain and “LF” lead-free designation on their products, as well as Milwaukee/Hammond Valve’s Ultra-Pure line of lead free valves, and NIBCO’s trademarked “Hydra-Pure” line of “Silicon Performance Bronze” valves. Each of these companies is a member of the “Get the Lead Out” Consortium, along with the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE) and the International Code Council (ICC). More information can be obtained at www.gettheleadoutplumbing.com. Even companies like Charlotte Pipe, a foundry known for the production of cast iron and plastic piping products, had to upgrade their transitional fittings to a more expensive brass, per Paul Tully, Field Technical Representative.

Other products have become obsolete for domestic water usage. Website and catalog content now have disclaimers stating that certain products are not allowed for use on potable water systems, hot or cold. A number of the available specification sheets have not yet been updated with this information, so further research is sometimes required. According to Robby Arison with The Founders Group (TFG), lead times on lead free products have stabilized since the first half of the year where it was a scramble to provide a mixture of standard product for non-potable water and the roll-out of new reduced-lead products.

The Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act establishes strict compliance with calculating lead content in manufactured plumbing products and requires a proactive attitude by producers regarding the transfer of lead into water by conveyance. It falls on the manufacturers to consider the backlash of changing the chemical makeup of their products because there is no standard replacement throughout the industry. It seems to be a mixture of bismuth or silicon copper alloy processes. One caveat to specifying products containing silicon is the need for a special flux due to lower thermal conductivity when soldering pipes.

In closing, the potential for lead contamination is impacting the construction industry in various ways. It is not limited to the health care or commercial sectors, but is making an impression on the industry as a whole. The consequences may not be apparent without knowledge of the hazards and steps to remediate, but with a better understanding we can make informed decisions for best recommended water treatment and product selections in the office and in the field. As always, we must be diligent in the research of local amendments and requirements of inspectors and the authorities having jurisdiction, as they will have the final say.

Lyric Lain is a plumbing designer with over seven years of experience. Lain has served on the Dallas-Fort Worth ASPE Board of Directors and is a member of the ASPE Young Professionals group. Lain can be contacted at lrlain@burnsmcd.com.

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