Frequently Asked Questions

What is lead?

Lead is a soft, heavy metal that has been used in plumbing because of its ability to form into shapes that deliver water efficiently and resist leaks. Lead has been used in a variety of consumer products such as gasoline, paint, spices, cosmetics, ceramics, and can also be found in soil either through naturally occurring deposits or from exterior paint or industrial sources. In drinking water, lead is tasteless, odorless and colorless.

Once regarded as a useful material, lead is now considered a toxic metal that is harmful if inhaled or swallowed. It has a range of adverse health effects, from lowered birth weight and slowed physical and mental development in infants, to lowered IQ levels, impaired hearing, reduced attention span, and poor classroom performance in young children.

Pregnant women and children under the age of 6 are most susceptible - they absorb 4–5 times as much ingested lead as adults from a given source. Source: EPA

How does lead get into drinking water?

Lead enters drinking water through plumbing materials and fixtures within the water distribution network. This means that lead enters our water after it leaves the water treatment plant.

There are three main sources of lead: 

  • Lead pipes - Lead service lines, the pipe that connects the water main under the street to a building’s plumbing. Lead pipes were also used inside plumbing but it is unusual. Congress banned use of lead pipes in 1986. 
  • Leaded solder – Solder is used to connect copper pipe and fittings. Congress banned the use of leaded solder in 1986.
  • Leaded alloys – Brass is frequently used in faucets and other plumbing components. In 1986, congress limited the amount of lead in brass to 8% (close to the level of lead typical of products at the time) and later in 2014 reduced the limit to a much lower level (0.25%)Source: Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative

The diagrams below outlines some of the common sources of lead in schools and homes:

There are many factors that can cause the levels of lead in drinking water to fluctuate. For example, contact time between the water and pipes can increase lead levels. Other water chemistry factors, such as pH, high levels of salts, and a high temperature can also cause higher lead levels. These variables make water “corrosive.” Simply put, corrosive water dissolves materials that it comes into contact with. Corrosive water makes it easier for lead in pipes, solder, and fixtures to dissolve into our drinking water.

Over time, standards have changed around lead in drinking water. Prior to 1951, lead was used to make service lines that connect homes and buildings to main pipelines. In 1974 the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was originally enacted, and in 1986, it was amended to ban the use of lead in plumbing materials. However, this “lead-free” standard had a loophole - the ban legally allowed up to 0.2% lead in solders and flux and up to 8% lead in pipes and pipe fittings. In 2011, this standard was lowered to a 0.25% allowable lead content in pipes and pipe fittings, which went into effect in 2014. As such, even relatively “new” buildings, with new pipes and fixtures, can still contribute to the problem of lead in drinking water.

For information on lead in your home, including resources to identify a lead service, see FAQ #7.

Why is HCS testing for lead in drinking water? What usually happens when schools complete testing?

Hamilton County Schools is testing for lead in drinking water to develop a comprehensive plan to remediate sources of lead in drinking water to protect the health of our students, faculty, and visitors. Although there are no federal regulations that require testing of drinking water in schools and childcare facilities, states and local jurisdictions may establish their own programs. In 2018, the state of Tennessee passed a law requiring school districts to implement policies to test for lead in drinking water sources in schools. Source: TN Department of Health

The goal of this program is to evaluate plumbing systems and materials so that targeted remediation efforts can be taken and the health of HCS students, faculty, and staff can be protected. HCS also plans to use this opportunity to share educational resources on lead in the hopes of reducing lead in homes and other areas in the community.

Experts agree that there is no safe level of lead. States and the EPA have set action levels for lead in drinking water. The EPA action level for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion (ppb). This level is used to trigger improved corrosion control (substances that form protective barriers around pipes to limit the rate and amount of lead that enters water) by a water utility under the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR). Source: EPA Although corrosion control is necessary, it is not a silver bullet for preventing lead in drinking water.

Even with corrosion control, schools detect lead when testing water more often than not. A report from Harvard University found that 44% of schools tested nationwide found samples with higher-than-recommended levels of lead. Source: Harvard

Data from 915 buildings sampled in Indiana showed that 62% of schools had at least one fixture greater than or equal to 15 ppb. Of the 811 school buildings sampled in Massachusetts, 69% were greater than or equal to 15 ppb. Source: in.gov

Testing requirements and programs vary significantly state by state. Currently, Tennessee is one of an estimated 17 states and Washington D.C. that have policies in place for lead in drinking water testing. Under state of Tennessee law, any source where testing results are equal to or greater than 20 ppb will immediately be removed from service and retesting of the source will occur within 90 days of corrective action. Hamilton County Schools has determined to follow EPA guidelines and will remediate any source with a testing result equal to or greater than 15 ppb. All testing results will be displayed in parts per billion, or ppb. One part per billion (1 ppb) is equivalent to 1 ug/L.

Previous case studies have shown that the pressure to deal with issues expediently may cause ineffective or inefficient solutions. HCSD will immediately remove any water sources that test to exceed the state action level from service. One remediation and retesting is complete, the water sources will be reopened. Because lead concentrations are variable, remediation can and should be an ongoing process, which is one of the reasons that a Lead Prevention Plan will be created for the district and point-of-use filters will be used. HCSD will continue to provide updates and share all testing data along the way.

How and when will testing be conducted?

Sampling and remediation efforts will take place for buildings built before January 1, 1998 during Summer 2020. Results and updates will be shared throughout the process.

Samples will be collected following a standard operating procedure incorporating the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Training, Testing, and Taking Action (3Ts) program and the requirements of the state law. Water must be standing in plumbing overnight before samples are collected. A “first draw” sample of water that has been standing in plumbing overnight will be collected in laboratory supplied sample bottles by certified vendors. Each sample will be assigned a unique number and each source will be tagged with a sticker displaying the unique number. The sample is then supplied to a separate qualified laboratory for conducting chemical analyses.

Because faucets, valves, fixtures and fittings can all be a source of lead exposure, it is important that schools and child care facilities do not use sample results from one outlet to characterize potential lead exposure from all other outlets in their facility. HCS will test each drinking water source individually by collecting a “first draw” sample along with one bathroom sink per bank of sinks.

Will the tests impact the availability of water in schools?

No. Sampling involves the collection of water from water fountains and sinks. There will be no impact on water service nor requirements to alter or turn off the water during the sampling process.

Factors that can impact water quality include the variables outlined in FAQ #2, and other variables like construction in the area and activities that disturb pipes such as earthquakes and construction.

Will Hamilton County Schools share the results?

Yes. Hamilton County Schools sees this project as an opportunity to improve awareness about lead for families across the area and will continue to communicate with parents, guardians, and caretakers to notify of lead testing results and any corrective actions that have been taken. The district will also inform the Department of Health, the Commissioner of Environment and Conservation, and the Department of Education, as required by law.

We are committed to keeping you informed every step of the way as we test and improve the water quality in our schools. In addition to a website where this information can be accessed, TruePani has developed an interactive map where all testing results will be linked. HCS will send a letter to parents, guardians, and caretakers at each school as testing results are completed. Any sources testing in exceedance of the state action level will immediately be removed from service.

What should I do to protect against lead in my home?

The first step to protect against lead exposure is through access to information as many myths and misconceptions around drinking water exist.

Studies have shown that millions of homes in the United States are supplied water by lead service lines, lead-bearing brass plumbing materials, and lead solder. As introduced in FAQ #2, lead usually enters water after treatment - during distribution. A water system can, and often is, in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) - yet many taps still distribute water containing lead. This is because the Lead and Copper Rule only requires water utilities to conduct a small number of household tests.

One of the main sources of lead in drinking water in homes is lead service lines, shown in the diagram below in blue. Lead service lines can be on both private and public property which makes replacement a challenge. Lead service lines should not be partially replaced as construction and corrosive reactions between new and old plumbing materials can cause elevated lead levels.

To find out whether the service line that delivers water to your home contains lead, contact your water utility. Your water utility may also be able to provide low or no cost lead testing. For Tennessee American Water, visit https://amwater.com/tnaw/ to find contact information.

Because of variables that cause lead levels in water to fluctuate, the best option to protect against lead in drinking water is often to use a “point of use” (POU) filter that is certified to remove lead. POU filters remove contaminants at the point where water is actually being used. For example, this may be a pitcher style filter, a faucet-mounted filter, or an inline refrigerator filter. However, not all filters are created equally. NSF 42 and 53 certified filters have undergone independent testing to ensure they effectively remove lead from drinking water. HCSD will be utilizing filters certified to these standards. Visit the NSF International website to ensure the model you chose is certified or view this guide by the EPA on the Tennessee State Government’s website. Source: TN.GOV

Other strategies to reduce lead in drinking water include:

  • Using cold water to cook and to prepare baby formula. Do not cook with or drink water from the hot water tap; lead dissolves more easily into hot water. Boiling DOES NOT remove lead from water.
  • Regularly clean faucet aerators. Aerators, the screens at the end of faucets, can collect debris. Rinse out collected materials to reduce debris accumulation.
  • Flush your water. Anytime the water in a particular faucet has not been used for an extended period of time, run water from cold-water pipes for 5+ minutes before drinking. The longer water sits in your home plumbing, the more lead may leach from lead-containing fixtures or service lines. Flushing provides short term benefits that are lost following stagnation.

Info graphic: Reduce your exposure

The above resources are especially related to “city” water. However, private wells are still at risk for corrosion of pipes and fixtures that can cause lead to enter drinking water. Wells older than 20 years may contain lead in the “packer” element that is used to help seal the well above the well screen or leaded-brass components. If you access drinking water from a private well more information is available here: https://www.epa.gov/privatewells

What do I do if I am worried about lead exposure for myself or my child?

If you think your child has been exposed to lead, contact your child’s health care provider. He or she can help you decide whether to test your child’s blood.

Drinking water is not the only source of lead exposure. The CDC has identified other sources of lead exposure including lead paint or dust, traditional home health remedies such as azarcon and greta, which are sometimes used for upset stomach or indigestion in the Hispanic community, imported candy and candy wrappers, imported toys and toy jewelry, imported cosmetics, pottery and ceramics, and consumer products.

If your child has an elevated blood lead level, your doctor may recommend actions such as finding and removing lead from your home, feeding your child a diet high in iron and calcium, connecting your child to early educational services, and follow-up blood lead testing. Early intervention is key to reducing long-term effects.

Source: CDC Prevent Children’s Exposure to Lead

Where can I find out more information on lead in drinking water?

All sources used in these questions are linked and a general resource list can be found below.

Where can I reach out with additional questions?

All questions can be emailed to Tim Harper or submitted over the phone by calling 423-498-7272. HCS will record the question and list the question and the response on the website. Additionally, the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline can be reached at 800-426-4791 and the CDC can be reached 1-800-CDC-INFO (232-4636).

RESOURCES