Plumbing and Lead: Getting the Lead Out


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Lead has a long tradition in plumbing; in fact, the word “plumber” comes from the Latin word for lead, “plumbum”. The Romans discovered that lead made a excellent plumbing material. Waterproof, malleable, and corrosion-resistant, it was used to line aquaducts and to make pipes. But they were unaware of the drawback of plumbing and lead: it’s toxic.


Let’s start with the basics: drinking water with lead contamination is bad. Generally bad, whoever you are, and particularly bad for the developing human fetus and for children under six years in age. Lead in drinking water impairs the proper neurodevelopment of these young people.

Lead is also toxic for adults, with symptoms gradually appearing over time as lead accumulates with continued exposure. Symptoms include abdominal pain or cramps, aggressive or irritable behavior, constipation, headaches and trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, fatigue, high blood pressure, numbness or tingling in the extremities, anemia, and kidney dysfunction.

Large single doses of lead cause yet another set of nasty symptoms, including vomiting, muscle weakness, stumbling, seizures, and even coma.

The bottom line: lead is best avoided completely. The federal standard for lead in drinking water is 10 parts per billion: the message is, there is really no safe level of lead.

Plumbing and Lead

Plumbing can be a source of lead as lead has been used, most now in the past, as a part of plumbing systems. In addition to lead piping, lead has been used in solder, and in some plumbing fixtures. Lead solder was used in Toronto until 1990, and lead can also be found in leaded-brass fixtures, such as faucets and valves.

In Toronto, there is a history of use of lead pipe in the section of piping running between the municipal water main and the piping system of residences (the “service pipe”). This use of lead piping was common until the mid-1950s, when the City updated its plumbing code to prohibit the use of lead piping. Homes built to code after that time will not have lead service pipes.


But that change in the plumbing code did not address the installed base of lead service pipes in use, and because the service pipe is buried fairly deeply in its run from the water main to the basement floor level of houses, many homeowners simply were not prepared to incur the cost of excavation and replacement of lead service pipes. So in many cases they remain, delivering lead into the water supply of residents.

What can be Done?

In 2011, the City of Toronto introduced its Lead in Drinking Water Mitigation Strategy, a multi-pronged approach to dealing with the risk of lead.

The strategy includes a lead testing program, a corrosion control plan, a “Priority Lead Water Service Replacement Program”, a “Capital Water Service Replacement Program”, and a “Faucet Filter Program”.

Lead House Service

The first step is testing for lead in your water, and the City will do this at no cost. The City’s testing of water from private residences done between 2007 and 2011 showed between 12 and 13 percent of homes exceeded the acceptable lead levels! In 2007, the City estimated page 7 65,000 lead service pipes remained in use, and estimated the cost to replace them would be $236 million dollars.

The Corrosion Control Plan is in development in coordination with the Provincial Ministry of the Environment. The idea is to add a corrosion-inhibiting substance into the water supply, to minimize the leaching of lead into the water. At the moment, the “Faucet Filter Program” will provide one filter per year to affected households.

But the really important step is replacing lead water service lines with copper. There are many details involved in the City’s program relating to the number of replacements funded per year, and what is funded, but the City is ready to coordinate with homeowners in replacing lead service pipes. In rough details, the City will be responsible for replacing lead piping _up to the property line_, and the homeowner is responsible for replacement on their own property. As the service line usually is found crossing the property line, the best strategy is coordination between the City and the homeowner to see that when work on one side of the property line is being done, that the other side is done at the same time.

It is not enough to let the City replace its portion of a lead service line, and not to also replace the private portion: doing so leaves a significant lead source in the water supply. Consequently, the City strongly encourages a full replacement, when lead piping is discovered.

The Fix

This is where Drain Master comes in. Homeowners serious about the safety of their residents should have their water tested for lead contamination, and, if their water has unacceptable lead levels, they should ascertain the source or sources of the lead. If they find that their service pipe is lead, it should be replaced. Contact MasterDrain today to get the ball rolling on cleaning up lead contamination in your piping: your health and the health of those residing in your home are at stake.

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