How Filters Can Remove Lead from Drinking Water

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Episode Description

On this episode, we'll be speaking with Tina Donda, vice president of IAPMO R&T Water Systems, who will discuss the different types of point-of-use water filters that can reduce the amount of lead in drinking water and how they are regulated.

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This episode is sponsored by QFlow B.V. (Netherlands) – offering innovative Legionella membrane filters to stop and help prevent legionellosis and more. Just because it’s clear, doesn’t mean it’s clean.

Christoph Lohr: Relief is finally coming for the more than 9 million homes and buildings still serviced by lead pipelines, as federal infrastructure funds are making replacements possible. But those projects take time, and lead in drinking water remains a threat right now. On today’s podcast, I'll be speaking with Tina Donda, vice president of IAPMO R&T Water Systems, who will discuss the different types of point-of-use water filters that can reduce the amount of lead in drinking water and how they are regulated.

Here's our discussion.

Tina, thanks so much for joining.

Tina Donda: Of course, my pleasure.

Christoph Lohr: For our episode today, what we wanted to go through was just talk in sort of a general sense for our audience about lead in water systems, and the first question I have is, how did lead become so prevalent in American plumbing?

Tina Donda: So I think the answer is, really it comes down to people being naive. Prior to 1986, our lead service lines were made with pipe that contained lead. Our copper pipes, the solder that was used to connect those was leaded solder, and we just didn’t know that it was going to cause harm to people.

Since then, and post-1986, the lead pipes are no longer being used. Leaded solder is no longer available, so we’re seeing some relief for new systems. But for all of us that are on those old systems, it really just comes down to education and not knowing when they were put in to begin with.

Christoph Lohr: So how bad is lead in our drinking water in the U.S.? What does it do to people, especially children?

Tina Donda: I think it’s really region specific, so you can’t really say that lead across the entire U.S. is really bad or, ‘Eh, don’t worry about it.’ I think it’s an issue for sure. It’s something that we have to take very seriously, particularly for children as you mentioned, but even pregnant women because lead exposure can cause learning disabilities as well as impaired formation and function of the blood cells, which of course is extremely important in developing children.

Christoph Lohr: How do you know then — there’s this threat of lead in our drinking water and all the potential negative health impacts. How do you know if lead is in the drinking water?

Tina Donda: The best way is to test your water. The water that’s coming from your tap. Regions and specific cities and areas do have consumer confidence reports that will provide you with information about the lead that is contained within the water as it leaves their facility, but that doesn’t include the infrastructure. The pipes that we talked about earlier, the water may be completely clear of lead as it leaves the municipality, but the infrastructure may add. Your best bet is to look up an environmental lab that has the availability to test for lead in drinking water.

Christoph Lohr: The testing criteria is a real important first step, but then obviously you can’t just test and not do anything about it. It seems that there’s a lot of replacing of lead service lines, and that’s a good thing. And we’re definitely, I think, all glad that’s underway. But it seems like that’s going to take awhile.

Tina Donda:Yeah.

Christoph Lohr: What other options are there for different municipalities and jurisdictions to trying to solve this today?

Tina Donda: As far as at the municipal level, I know that there are some municipalities that seek to provide their users with certified devices to reduce the amount of lead in the water.

This is typically going to be in areas of crisis. We’re all familiar with the Flint, Michigan, scenario and some smaller water systems that service much smaller communities. They actually have adopted the use of combining multiple point-of-use or point-of-entry certified products to handle the reduction of lead at their facility as well.

Christoph Lohr: We have this idea of trying to get rid of lead in multiple ways, but I also am hearing a lot of these things talking about lead free. What does lead free mean? The EPA lead-free rule permits a weighted average of 0.25% lead in pipes and plumbing fixture fittings when used with respect to wetted surfaces of a pipe. For our audience and for myself too, what does this mean?

Tina Donda: That’s a good question because the words lead free, I think when you jump on them, think, ‘Oh, great, everything’s OK.’ But really the lead-free rule is talking about the percent content of lead within a product. But lead free does not mean zero. And unfortunately, for a lot of people that aren’t in the industry, free to them means zero, right?

But you’ve already described, you’ve said 0.25%. That 0.25% meets those requirements, but sometimes when the water flows through it, the water pulls out that lead at concentrations above the allowable levels set by the EPA for the amount of lead that can be in drinking water, which means you could be consuming more than what you should be.

Christoph Lohr: Is there any kind of current type of filters that can remove lead from drinking water? How do they work? How effective are they? Is there something that people can do at the tap to address any concerns that they have?

Tina Donda: Yeah, the most common — and certainly not the only ways, but the most common ways — are through filtration products that are specifically manufactured and certified to reduce lead.

The reason that I say specifically manufactured that way is because in order to reduce lead in a filtration-type product, they typically have to use a very specialized media that attracts and absorbs that lead. If we’re using just a standard carbon filter, for example, that’s not going to do everything you need to get down to the levels that are required.

The other technology is reverse osmosis technology, which is also good at reducing lead. That technology actually separates the water so the water that has the higher concentrations of lead goes to the drain and the water that is acceptable goes to the end user, to the tap. Actually, both methods are effective for reducing lead, just making sure that they’ve actually been tested to do that because not all products will, but if they’ve been tested and can prove it.

Christoph Lohr: How are they tested to know that they’re going to perform?

Tina Donda: There are a few different principles. The industry actually has created standards for this type of testing. Both for RO technology and filtration technology, standards exist. For filtration, the lead reduction test is found in NSF/ANSI 53. For reverse osmosis, it’s NSF/ANSI 58. And in very simple terms, the products are introduced with high levels of concentration of lead, so there’s a safety factor. Every sample point that we collect throughout the duration of this testing has to show that it reduces that 150 part-per-billion concentration of lead to at or less than 5 parts per billion, so it’s pretty significant how much reduction these products have to be capable of in order to be certified.

Christoph Lohr: Wow, that’s amazing. So you're going from a test water of about 150 parts per billion, and the test requires you to get below 5. What is the EPA limit again for the amount of allowable lead in the water?

Tina Donda: I want to say it’s 10 right now. They have a couple different, they have maximum contaminant goals, they have allowable concentrations. The goal is obviously zero, but in an analytical world, it's very difficult to record zero. Our instruments just can’t see that low. They can’t be confident that they can see zero.

Christoph Lohr: Awesome. Awesome. Well, if you were going to peer into the crystal ball and in a year’s time, we had you back on the podcast. In terms of lead filters, any future predictions or what do you think we would be talking about the next time in terms of lead filtration?

Are there any trends in the industry that our listeners should be aware of?

Tina Donda: I think there are a couple trends where companies are trying to delve a little bit more into the point-of-entry side of things. Not only at your tap, but as the water comes into your home. I know that there are a couple companies out there that have actually pursued that, but I do think that there might be more that are going to try and get into that side of things, but it’s still filtration.

It’s just at that bigger level where it treats all of the water in your home as opposed to individual taps.

Christoph Lohr: Excellent. Well, on behalf of The Authority Podcast: Plumbing and Mechanical, Tina, it was absolutely wonderful to have you on the episode today, and hope you’ll come back soon.

Tina Donda: I would love to. Thanks so much for having me.