No amount of lead in our water is safe. But replacing potentially hazardous lead service lines is no small task.
By Travis Thompson
Lead service lines, like the one pictured here, were initially installed by builders most likely before or during the mid-1950s and are owned by customers.
You’ve read about Flint, Michigan, a community in crisis after lead levels spiked following a series of water supply and operational changes.
This tragic failure has sparked a national dialogue on the safety of our drinking water and a positive movement to eliminate the risk of lead.
Many communities across the country are now re-examining their approaches and fixing the problem where they find it, including Denver.
Here are five questions – and answers – about getting the lead out of Denver homes:
- Is our drinking water safe?
First, no amount of lead in drinking water is safe.
Last year, Denver Water collected more than 35,000 samples and conducted more than 68,000 water quality tests.
Lead isn’t present in the mountain streams and reservoirs that supply our water, or in water when it leaves our treatment plants and travels through our system’s water mains.
Yet, lead can still show up in the water coming out of your home faucet. That’s because, for some homes, the service lines that bring water from the water main in the street to your home are made of lead. Household plumbing fixtures like faucets may also contain lead.
Just because a home has a lead service line, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is leaching lead into the water.
- So how can I find out?
The only way to know for certain if you have lead in your drinking water is to have it tested.
Call Denver Water at 303-893-2444 or use this online form and we’ll send you a sampling kit to collect the water. Then we’ll test the samples so you’ll know if you’re at risk. The sampling kit and the test are free.
You also may choose to have your water tested by an independent lab. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment provides a list of labs and fees.
If your water tests positive for lead, you can protect yourself by using a filter certified for lead removal. A list of filters can be found on The National Sanitation Foundation’s website. Make sure the filter is NSF Standard 53.
You may also have your service line tested to see if it is made of lead. If it is, we encourage you to replace the line. We recommend using an experienced, licensed plumber for service line testing and replacement work.
The most common source of lead in treated drinking water is a customer’s plumbing.
- Where are the lead service lines?
Pinpointing how many Denver-area properties have lead service lines and where they are is not easy.
In Denver Water’s experience, homes and buildings most likely to have lead service lines are those built before or during the mid-1950s, but we simply don’t have enough information to know exactly when and where lead was used by plumbers and builders in our service area.
We are researching regulations, plumbing codes and policies from prior decades when lead was a commonly used material for a better understanding on where lead service lines may exist in the Denver metro area.
Because Denver Water doesn’t own the service lines, we don’t have records of where the original lead service lines have been replaced with a non-lead material, such as copper.
We’re working with our available data to see if we can glean enough information to better identify homes at risk. You can help us narrow the scope of our research by calling 303-893-2444 to report if you know you have a lead service line.
- What’s Denver Water doing?
Long before the Flint crisis thrust lead into the national spotlight, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was already working on regulatory changes and rules to guide communities and water utilities on removing lead from private service lines. But those changes are not likely for a few more years.
“We’re not waiting for the new regulations,” said Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead. “The Flint situation lays bare this simple fact: Our communities will be safer in the long run with no lead service lines in the ground.”
Until new policies are developed, Denver Water has enacted an interim lead replacement plan:
When our construction crews encounter a lead service line during main breaks, pipe rehabilitation or pipe replacement, we will replace that line entirely with copper. We also will provide homeowners with detailed information regarding their water quality.
In addition, we will provide homeowners with a filter and offer to test the water at no cost after we replace the service line, because lead can still be present in internal plumbing fixtures.
- Who will pay to replace all those lead service lines?
That’s the toughest question of all. The American Water Works Association estimates there are 6.1 million lead service lines still in the U.S., and the estimated cost to remove them is $30 billion.
“Replacing lead lines involves shared responsibility among utilities, customers, government and other stakeholders,” said Lochhead. “As a community and as a broader society, we need to have a serious discussion on how we get the lead out.”
Those conversations have already started at local, state and federal levels. All options are on the table: changes to plumbing codes, property disclosure requirements and potential sources of funding the cost of service line replacement.
Until those policies are clear, Denver Water will continue to provide sampling kits, offer testing and other resources, and replace lead service lines when we find them as part of our regular construction efforts, Lochhead said.
Go to the Denver Water website to learn where water meets lead, how to know if your home is at risk and ways to reduce your exposure to lead in drinking water.