AUBURN, Maine — The city has detected higher-than-acceptable levels of lead in some household tap water.
Routine tests found more than double the amount detected three years ago. Auburn now joins several dozen other water systems in the state that are on increased lead monitoring.
Lead is found naturally in the environment. But when it shows up in drinking water, the contamination doesn’t typically stem from the water source. It’s from plumbing.
Auburn Water Superintendent Sid Hazelton attributes the elevated lead levels in some of his city’s households to old pipes.
“If they happen to have plumbing that was connected with lead solder, that’s the source of the lead,” he says.
Lead can cause severe physical and mental impairment when it’s ingested. Lead solder was banned back in 1986, but homes built before that are more likely to have higher lead levels in their plumbing.
When the Auburn Water District tested a sample of 44 homes, about 10 percent had lead levels of 23 parts per billion. That’s more than double the 2012 levels of 9 parts per billion, and well above the EPA threshold.
“The acceptable amount is 15 parts per billion,” Hazelton says.
Auburn is now required to increase monitoring until the lead levels decrease. Maine’s Drinking Water Program Director Roger Crouse says Maine has about 800 public water systems, ranging from municipal districts and schools to businesses. And Auburn’s lead problem is not unique.
“Currently there are about 50 or 60 systems that are on increased monitoring — elevated monitoring,” he says.
Bangor had to do elevated monitoring when it detected a sudden increase in lead levels back in 2010.
“It was a surprise,” says Dina Page, water quality manager for the Bangor Water District, which serves about a half dozen communities. She says the spike was due to a change in the city’s water treatment process. The water, she says, was too pure.
“If you have a water that’s just so devoid of anything else, then the tendency when it’s sitting in the pipe is the lead will want to leach into the water,” she says.
Add some minerals, Page says, and they act as a buffer. Bangor added sodium carbonate to its water. Five years later, Page says, the Bangor Water District has some of the lowest lead results it has ever seen.
“Right now, our results from this year are 5 parts per billion of lead,” she says.
While water systems are obligated to adjust water chemistry to minimize the chance it will absorb lead, Page says consumers should take precautions as well. The No. 1 tip?
“Letting your cold water run for three minutes anytime is has set — especially overnight,” she says. “So do that first thing in the morning before drinking or cooking.”
The longer water sits stagnant in pipes, the more lead it can absorb. Running the water a few minutes costs about a penny, Page says, and water-conscious consumers can use that time to rinse dirty dishes or recyclables.
There is, of course, the more expensive option to replace old plumbing — but Crouse says to keep in mind the lead may actually come from the faucet itself.
“It may be just that fixture at your kitchen sink that has brass that has a higher lead content than appropriate,” he says.
Crouse says there are plenty of old fixtures still in use. And for homeowners not connected to a municipal water source, Crouse says it’s a good idea to test for lead every five years.
“There’s a number of certified labs throughout the state,” he says.
Tests from certified drinking water labs cost $20-$30, says Crouse. But it’s critical to follow instructions to get a proper sample, and results.