Why Your Old Plumbing May Endanger the Health of Your Family

As long as the plumbing on your old home is working and keeps you supplied with water, everything is okay, right? Not necessarily true. There are several reasons that old plumbing which still seems to work okay could adversely affect your family’s health.

Why You Don’t Want Plumbing Pipes with Any Lead

In 1986, Congress passed a law that banned the use of lead in making pipes or solder used in any plumbing materials. At that time, however, the definition of “lead-free” meant that pipes could still contain 8% lead. Two more laws passed in 1996 and 2011 refined the terms of this law to drop this limit from 8% to 0.2% for any plumbing materials providing water for human consumption. 

Homes built before 1986 with original plumbing fixtures are likely to still have lead in their plumbing fixtures. When water is corrosive—when it has a pH less than 6.5—water will tend to leach out lead and other metals from the fixtures. When your family drinks water straight from the plumbing, without filtration, they ingest this lead along with any other metals leached from the fixtures. It’s not possible to see, smell or taste this lead in your water.

The effects of this ingestion can be serious. Consumption of lead increases adults’ risk for cancer, high blood pressure, kidney disease, stroke and memory problems. For children, there is a risk of seizures, hearing loss, brain damage, lower IQ, behavioral problems and learning disabilities. When a pregnant woman ingests lead, she suffers an increased risk of reduced birth weight and premature birth.

Corroded Iron Pipes Can Add Rust to Your Drinking Water

Although it seems strange, water is a solvent. If given enough time, water can dissolve anything. When chlorine disinfectants are used to kill microorganisms in public water supplies, water can become even more corrosive. Your old iron pipes (if you have any) eventually suffer the effects of decades of water passing through them.

In addition to becoming corroded internally—reducing water flow—or developing pinholes, these old iron pipes can introduce dissolved iron or rust into your drinking water. Dissolved iron will make the water taste metallic but it is not harmful as long as the level stays low. If the level increases, it’s possible to accumulate too much iron in the body. This condition is known as hemochromatosis. Its symptoms include fatigue, weakness, joint pain, brain fog and depression.

Rust in water, as long as it’s not ingested over a long period of time, is not particularly harmful but it will stain fixtures and clothes washed in that water. If you have rust in your water, you should have a plumber help you to identify the exact source so you know if you just need a new water heater or if you need to repipe your house.

Copper Pipes or Connections Can Mean Copper in Your Water

Copper pipes or connections can add excessive amounts of copper to your household water. This is the most true when water has been sitting in your pipes for several hours. Hot water in particular can transfer copper from pipes to water. 

Your water can be stained red, brown or orange when it’s picking up dissolved copper. Drinking water with low levels of copper is not harmful unless a person has trouble eliminating copper from their body (Wilson’s disease). If levels increase, the result can be nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps. Infants and children are the most susceptible.

Cadmium Can Enter Water from Galvanized Pipes

Galvanized pipes are coated with zinc to prevent corrosion. This zinc coating may be contaminated with both lead and cadmium. Cadmium is another metal you don’t want in your water. If cadmium in the water exceeds levels recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency, the effects can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and muscle cramps. Even worse, short exposure to higher levels can cause liver injury, shock, convulsions and kidney failure.

Do You Need to Replace Plumbing Right Now?

Plumbing replacement is the best permanent solution but if it can’t be done right away, these measures can help: 

  1. Test your water so you know if it has any of these metals in it
  2. Flush your system for a full minute first thing in the morning and before you use the water if it has been sitting for a while
  3. Add a whole house filtration system to remove metals 
  4. Treat your water so it is less corrosive and does not add metals to the water

ETR Laboratories can help you with a water test to check out the current levels of lead, copper, iron, cadmium or many other unwanted contaminants. Choose from our fast, accurate water tests to learn if your plumbing is causing any problem with your water quality.