What’s on this page:

 Overview of lead in drinking water

The primary exposure of lead in drinking water is through consumption of water that contains lead. Lead can enter drinking water when plumbing materials that contain lead corrode, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content that corrodes pipes and fixtures. The skin does not absorb lead, so showering and handwashing should not pose a high exposure risk.

Health Effect of Lead Exposure 

While anyone can experience health effects from consuming lead, young children, infants, and fetuses are particularly vulnerable because the physical and behavioral effects of lead occur at lower exposure levels in children than in adults. Potential health risks in adults may include cardiovascular effects, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems. Potential health risks in children include lower IQ, hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia. Lead is not found in natural water sources.

EPA requires all community water systems to prepare and deliver an annual water quality report called a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) for their customers. Accordingly, the City of Raleigh, which supplies water to campus, publishes its Consumer Confidence Report that lists the levels of contaminants that have been detected in the municipal water supply, and whether the system meets state and EPA drinking water standards.

In 1991, EPA published a regulation to control lead and copper in drinking water. This regulation is known as the Lead and Copper Rule. The treatment technique for the rule requires systems to monitor drinking water at customer taps. On October 10, 2019 EPA proposed major changes to this rule (Lead & Copper) by creating a new trigger level of 10 parts per billion (ppb), and requires water systems to develop lead service line (LSL) replacement plans only after sampling exceeds the action level. More information can be found here.

Sampling Protocol for Lead in Drinking Water

According to the EPA, testing is the best way to confirm the presence of lead in drinking water. You cannot see, taste, or smell lead in drinking water. Any outlet for potable water is a potential source for lead, e.g. drinking water fountains, kitchen sinks, bathroom faucets in housing facilities, bottle fillers, etc.

The NC State Water Quality Management Team (WQMT) plans to sample buildings on campus in phases. For phase one, the team is sampling a matrix of 52 buildings with at least one building constructed each decade past up to 1898. Sampling results, available Test Results Sample.xlsx, provides trends with which the team is adjusting its sampling plan accordingly.

Sampling Process

Drinking water sampling is a multi-step process that requires each drinking water fixture to sit unused for 8-18 hours before the sample is collected. This is according to EPA’s recommendation available in its guidance for drinking water sampling, 3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water.

 The following outlines EHS’s campus drinking water sampling process:

    • Flush each drinking water fixture to be sampled by turning on the cold water tap, if present, and allow the water to run for approximately one minute.
    • Isolate the fixture to be tested by placing a sign indicating that the water fixture should not be used by building occupants
    • Allow the drinking water source to sit unused for 8-18 hours.
    • Collect sample after the waiting time has elapsed
    • After sample collection, resume use of the drinking water fixture until results are available.

 Note: All samples are analyzed by an accredited independent lab.

Results Interpretation

Although the EPA recommends 15 parts per billion (ppb) as action level for lead in drinking water, the WQMT has chosen 5 ppb  as its action level. All sampling results received from the lab will be posted online . No action will be taken for results that are less than 5 ppb. Results that are greater than or equal to 5 ppb will be placed out of service and remediated using the steps outlined in the response plan below. These fixtures will not be returned to service until testing confirms that the lead levels are below 5 ppb.

Results Notification

EHS on behalf of the WQMT will formally communicate to building occupants when test results are at or above the action level of 5 ppm. Occupants will be notified when the issues are resolved and the fixtures back in service.

Response Plan for Elevated Results

  • Fixtures with elevated levels (above 5 ppb) will be managed according to the response plan below:
  • Immediately remove the fixture from service.
  • Depending on the facility type, it may be necessary to temporarily provide drinking water.

            Level I Plan: Local Flushing

    • Turn off the fixture at the valve and tag out.
    • Flush the Control Point/Affected area for at least 10 minutes
    • Retest after flushing using same sampling protocol above
    • Collect and analyze additional samples if necessary to determine the source of the contamination.
    • If results come back negative, resume use of fixture; otherwise, proceed to Level 2 Response plan below

            Level 2 Plan: Additional Hazard Control

Immediately remove the fixtures from service. Turn off fixture at valve and tag out.

    • Depending on the facility type, it may be necessary to temporarily provide drinking water.
    • Collect and analyze additional samples if necessary to determine the source of the contamination.
    • Make repairs to mitigate the source of contamination. This may include repair or replacement of entire fixtures, aerators, calves, flex lines, service lines or filter installation.
    • Retest the fixture and return to service only when test comes back below the action level

 Lead Frequently Asked Questions

Who do I contact for general questions?

For health and safety concerns, you may contact Environmental Health and Safety on (919) 515-7915. For facility-related questions like fixtures, plumbing lines, please contact (919) 515-2991

How often is water sampling done in campus buildings?

The Water Quality Management Team conducts routine sampling of campus drinking water. Samples are taken in approximately 50 campus buildings annually with each building tested approximately every 5 years. Testing results are available here Test Results Sample.xlsx

 What is Lead?

Lead (Pb) is a naturally occurring element found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. While it has some beneficial uses, it can be toxic to humans and animals, causing health effects.

Where does lead come from?

Lead can be found in all parts of our environment – the air, soil, water, and even inside our homes. Lead paint and dust are the primary source of lead exposure, especially in older homes. Drinking water is usually a smaller source of exposure to lead, but this varies greatly among homes, schools, and other buildings, and can add to other lead sources.

How does Lead get into the water?

Lead can enter drinking water when plumbing materials that contain lead corrode. The most common sources of lead in drinking water are lead pipes, faucets, and fixtures. In homes with lead pipes that connect the home to the water main, these pipes are typically the most significant source of lead in the water.

Given the recent identification of lead in drinking water at UNC, does the university have plans to test campus water sources on a regular basis.

NC State purchases water from the City of Raleigh, and the State of North Carolina owns the water distribution system on campus.

Members of the university’s Environmental Health and Safety unit and the Facilities Division instituted a Water Quality Program in 2019 to help ensure the operation and maintenance of the state-owned water system in accordance with best practices and in coordination with the City of Raleigh.

There is a scheduled testing matrix for all main campus buildings. The sampling matrix  may be viewed here –  Building Sampling Matrix.xlsx

In 1990 the Environmental Protection Agency published a list of water coolers that had the potential to contaminate water with lead because the coolers contained lead containing solders or components. Are any of these water coolers in use on campus?

All campus buildings have been surveyed and none of the water coolers on the list are used on campus. In 2019 a pilot project testing for lead, copper, chlorine and bacteria was conducted in two campus buildings. The results were compared to EPA drinking water standards and FDA bottled water standards. Results in both buildings were well within both standards.

Can I shower in lead-contaminated water?

Yes. Bathing and showering should be safe, even if the water contains lead over EPA’s action level. Human skin does not absorb lead in water.

Is it safe to wash my hands in water that may contain lead?

Again, the skin does not absorb lead from water

How much lead in water is too much?

The U.S EPA set the maximum allowable concentration of lead in public drinking water at 15 micrograms per liter (or 0.015 milligram per liter). The NC DEQ’s groundwater quality standard for lead is the same as the EPA standard of 15 µg/L. Since lead serves no beneficial purpose in the human body, it is the best if drinking water contains no lead.

How do I know if there is lead in my drinking water?

According to the US EPA, testing is the best way to confirm the presence of lead in drinking water. You cannot see, taste, or smell lead in drinking water

What are the potential health effects of lead exposure?

According to the CDC, lead poisoning can happen if a person is exposed to very high levels of lead over a short period of time. When this happens, a person may feel: Abdominal pain, Constipated, Loss of appetite, Memory loss, etc. Exposure to high levels of lead may cause anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage. Very high lead exposure can cause death.

What should I do if I am concerned about the water in my building?

The Water Quality Management Team is planning on testing all buildings on campus, but this is being done in phases based on a scheduled sampling protocol. You do not have to call to schedule your building, as this is already part of the plan.

What types of fixtures are being tested?

For now, testing is being done in drinking fountains, bottle fillers, and kitchen sinks. Ice machines, coffee makers, refrigerators, etc. are not being tested right now, but may be tested later based on the data trend from tested sources.

What criteria is the university using for its test results?

0.005 mg/L

What actions do you take for tests that came back less than or more than 0.005 mg/L or above the EPA action level of 0.015 mg/L

See response plan for elevated results above

How does the university test the water for lead?

Testing is done according to EPA approved methods for groundwater and drinking water testing found here

Where are the samples analyzed?

The samples are analyzed by EPA and NC accredited labs: members of the national lead laboratory accreditation program (NLLAP).

Where can I find information on buildings that have been tested?

Testing information can be found here Test Results Sample.xlsx

Who do I contact for general questions?

For health and safety concerns, you may contact Environmental Health and Safety on (919)-515-7915. For facility-related questions like fixtures, plumbing line, please contact 919-515-2991


Additional Resources