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Administration: Office of Environmental Health & Safety

Lead in Drinking Water

Lead is highly toxic. Lead, in all of its forms (elemental, inorganic, organic), produces serious negative health effects in all animals, including humans. Although lead has no functional or nutritional value the human body cannot differentiate between lead and calcium, a necessary nutrient, and will take up lead found in food, water and the environment in much the same way as calcium. Some of the lead taken up is excreted, some remains in organs and systems for several months; the rest is absorbed into the bones, where it remains.

Lead exposure can be acute (large exposure over a short period of time) or, more typically, chronic (at low levels over a long period of time). Lead exposure causes serious central nervous system and neurological effects, harms the kidneys, blood-forming processes and the reproductive system.

Children are more susceptible to lead exposure due to their smaller size, normal behaviors (e.g. hand to mouth activity) and rapidly-developing systems. Lowered IQ and attention span, learning disabilities, poor classroom performance, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, impaired growth and hearing loss are associated with low blood lead levels (<10 μg/dL) in children. Very high blood lead levels (>70 μg/dL) can cause severe neurological problems such as coma, convulsions and death. All children in NYS (including NYC) are tested for blood lead levels at one and again at two years of age. Adults who are at increased risk of lead exposure (due to work or hobbies) are strongly encouraged to be tested for blood lead levels.

Lead in drinking water. Lead seldom occurs naturally in rivers and lakes. NYC’s upstate water resources - first established nearly 180 years ago in never-industrialized areas - are protected from development and pollution to provide excellent water for generations of New Yorkers. The NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) performs > 500,000 water quality tests annually, testing for about 250 contaminants. Extremely small quantities of nonhazardous additives are introduced into the water by DEP to actively reduce the potential for lead to be introduced into water from household piping. 

Lead enters drinking water primarily due to corrosion of lead-containing plumbing, including pipes that connect household plumbing to NYC’s water mains, solder on copper pipes and faucets.  Although regulations exist that ban/reduce lead in plumbing, individual homes and apartment houses may still contain plumbing and fixtures with lead content if they were installed before these rules came into effect. Lead is more likely to be leached from piping and fixtures if the water is allowed to stand for hours/days.

Ways to further reduce the amount of lead in drinking water by end users include allowing water to run for several minutes if the fixture is used for the first time of the day, using only cold water for cooking and drinking, regularly cleaning out aerators on faucets and periodically draining sediments at the bottom of hot-water tanks.

Water in NYC public schools and childcare centers is required to be tested for lead at least annually. The water fountains in the Child Care Center and High School of American Studies are flushed every morning by B&G staff when school is in session. At Lehman College, all of the originally-installed water fountains in campus buildings have long since been changed out for modern water fountains that have lead-free plumbing/piping. The College does not routinely conduct campus-wide water quality testing of water fountains; this is almost always unnecessary. Water fountains are chosen for water quality testing on the basis of the (increased) likelihood of contamination that takes into account the age of the piping coming from the main, the distance of the water fountain from the main, how often the fountain is used, etc. Any water fountain found to have lead >15 parts per billion (15 ppb, EPA’s Action level for lead) would be taken out of service and repaired/replaced.

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