Lead Water Main Health Risk in NYC
October 15, 2019

Throughout New York City most houses built prior to 1960 had lead water mains installed and still remain unless they have been upgraded. There are also many homes built in the 1980s that used lead for soldering to join the existing copper pipes.

The primary reason for the use of lead piping was due to cost, resistance to rust and the fact that lead piping is easy to weld when making connections. As time went on people started to get concerned with the overall health risk and began using other materials such as copper, which is commonly used in NYC.

What is a water main?

A water main is the pipe that provides the water used for drinking, showering, cooking etc. from the roadway where the city water main is located, to inside the house where the main control valve is.

It is reported that there are still over ten million homes in the US with lead water mains servicing their homes.

Why is lead a concern?

It is common to question the health risk when living with lead water main as most people are not 100% certain how severe the potential issues are. The impact that lead may have on one’s body are extremely severe and should be taken seriously. Lead has been known to cause kidney damage, reproductive issues and a decline in fertility.

There is a greater concern when an infant or a young child is exposed to lead because it takes less lead to impact a child. A child and a adult may be exposed to the same lead levels for the same period of time yet the child may be the only one showing any health issues.  Lead is known to impact the nervous system, impaired hearing, ability to learn and changes in behavior. In rare cases ingestion of lead has been reported to cause seizures, coma and even death. This is the reason why we continue to hear about issues dealing with lead paint and the updated laws around lead paint.

The risk of lead for pregnant women poses a completely separate set of issues. The impact may reduce the overall growth of the fetus as well as premature growth. If you have any concerns it is suggested to consult with your doctor on these details.

The overall issue of lead in our water pipes is a more recent topic for discussion which was partially triggered by the issues in Flint Michigan. As time goes on we continue to hear about the issue in our towns and counties who are attempting to update rules and regulations to avoid any future sickness due to lead.

There are talks that lead water mains will become illegal in NYC over the next few years. This will require the property owner to upgrade the existing service to copper. It is suggested to get ahead of the curve and avoid inflation which most plumbers face in NYC. It is also suggested to replace the lead water main before you have a water main leak requiring emergency service which may result in damage to property and a violation from the city.

How to determine if your water main is lead?

The first option is a visual test which requires you to scrape the pipe at the point it enters your home, before the main control valve- see below for the location indicated by the red arrow.

Lead water main in nyc
Lead water main

If the pipe appears to be a gold/red color along the lines of the above picture it is safe to assume the existing pipe is copper. If it is an older copper pipe it may not be as easy to determine and you may want to consult with someone who has a trained eye.

If you have a lead pipe you will see a silver shiny like material which is easy to differentiate from copper. The material is also a lot softer which you should be able to feel when scraping the pipe.

Lead water main
Lead water main

Another way to determine the existing material makeup is to identify when the house was built. If the house was built in the 1940’s and it still has the original water main, it is safe to assume the pipe is made of lead. If you are not exactly sure when the house was built you can ask a Licensed Master Plumber to obtain DEP tapping records.

If a tap card is available it may provide you info such as the year the water service was installed, type of material and location of the connection in the roadway. The details specified on the tap card are not always easy to read and many of them date back to the 1950’s.

DEP tap records
DEP tap records

If you are not clear on the material of the existing water main it is suggested to have a Licensed Master Plumber perform an on-site inspection of your home and determine the material make up.

Other risks for lead water mains

Natural wear and tear may force you to upgrade your water main from lead to copper before you have a chance to consider the facts. It is important to understand that an 80 year old lead pipe is susceptible to leaking and it should not serve as a surprise. In many cases a homeowner is made aware that their water main is leaking in the street, sidewalk or inside the house and as a result they must replace the pipe on an emergency basis.

If you have lead water main it should alleviate the bad news of the broken water main after understanding that the pipe was old and hazardous. For many homeowners, this helps to assume they did not experience any major flooding as a result of the broken pipe. If you are aware that your water line is lead it is strongly suggested to get ahead of a possible water main break and seek options for a full line replacement.

Lead water main leak inside house in Manhattan
Lead water main leak inside house in Manhattan

How to upgrade a lead water main?

Upgrading your lead water main to copper is a standardized process for any subsurface water main and sewer contractor. The process includes obtaining all of the required DEP & DOT permits for the piping installation.

The first stage is excavating in the roadway over the location where your pipe meets the city pipe (AKA Tap connection).

The next stage is to prepare the additional excavations including tunnels from one hole to the next.

And finally the new copper pipes is installed from one hole to the next, before it is re-connected back to the existing piping in the house.

New copper connected to the city main
New copper connected to the city main