Most new homes are constructed with plastic water supply lines made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyethylene (PEX). These plastics are safe, easy-to-install, and long-lived.
However, in the long history of indoor plumbing, water pipes have been made from a variety of materials, including metals of various kinds and even wood. Well into the 1900s, one particular metal, lead, was the most common material used to fabricate water pipes.
Unfortunately, lead is now known to be unsafe for use in supplying water inside a home. Below is more information about lead water pipes, why you should promptly replace them, and how to know if your home's plumbing system contains lead pipes.
An Introduction to Lead Water Pipes
Lead pipes date back to ancient Rome when they were used to transport water. Lead was popular as a plumbing material due to its resistance to developing tiny pinhole leaks and easy working characteristics.
The widespread use of lead pipes in indoor plumbing continued all the way until the early 20th century. After the dangers of lead were discovered by scientists, galvanized steel became the predominant material used for water pipes.
Why Lead Pipes Should Be Replaced
Lead is a toxic metal and can cause significant health problems in both children and adults. Since lead tends to accumulate within body tissues, its potential to cause harm only increases over time. In addition, even relatively small amounts of lead are serious threats to health.
In babies and children, lead poisoning has been demonstrated to cause learning and developmental delays. In addition, other childhood problems such as hearing loss and severe misbehavior are associated with lead exposure.
For adults, the negative effects of lead exposure include high blood pressure, kidney disease, and reproductive problems. Pregnant mothers can also pass on lead to developing fetuses, causing birth defects.
Most people acknowledge the dangers of lead and that it is no longer appropriate as a means of water transport. However, the dangers presented by lead pipes are not always equivalent.
For example, lead is leached from water pipes much more quickly when the water contains fewer minerals. Likewise, hot water will remove lead from water pipes much more quickly than cold water. Regardless, all lead pipes should be removed and replaced as an urgent matter.
How to Identify Lead Pipes in Your Home
Over time, lead pipes are replaced as discovered, but there are still an unknown number of houses that contain lead plumbing. That is why it is important for homeowners to take a closer look for lead pipes, particularly if they reside in an older home.
Fortunately, identifying lead pipes isn't difficult if you can get close to them. Below are several characteristics of lead pipes that will provide a clear indication of its metal content:
- Gray. Copper pipes are shiny orange in color when new or clean, and they may possess a greenish tinge if left untouched for a period of time. However, galvanized steel and lead pipes are both gray in color.
- Soft. Lead is one of the softest metals in use, and it is easily dented, bent or scratched. You can test for softness by rubbing the tip of a sharp nail along the pipe. Galvanized steel will scratch a bit, but a lead pipe will gouge more deeply.
- Non-magnetic. Lead is a non-magnetic metal and placing a magnet on a lead pipe will have no effect. On the other hand, a galvanized steel pipe will attract and retain a magnet.
Keep in mind that not all lead pipes on your property may be visible. For example, it is possible for lead pipes to be buried between the water meter and your home. In addition, lead pipes may exist in hidden areas behind drywall.