Addressing and Assessing Lead Threats in Drinking Water: Non-Leaded Brass, Product Testing, Particulate Lead Occurrence and Effects of the Chloride to Sulfate Mass Ratio on Corrosion

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Virginia Tech


Growing concern over adverse health effects from low level lead exposure motivated reassessment of lead occurrence in drinking water, from the perspective of 1) possibly eliminating lead from new brass materials, and 2) performance testing of existing products. During the course of this thesis work, it was discovered that several cases of childhood lead poisoning in North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington D.C. occurred from contaminated potable water. That disconcerting finding prompted additional work into 3) deficiencies in existing lead testing of drinking water samples, and 4) impacts of water treatment steps on lead leaching.

Meters, components, and fittings manufactured from non-leaded brass (< 0.25 percent lead content) are increasingly specified for use in water distribution systems and premise plumbing, in response to California's Proposition 65 and the proposed Lead Free Drinking Water Act. An in-depth review of the available literature revealed that non-leaded brass releases minimal amounts of lead and other contaminants of concern to drinking water. There is legitimate concern about the corrosion resistance and longevity of these non-leaded alloys in the range of waters that will be encountered in practice. Nonetheless, when the potential impacts to manufacturers, utilities and consumers are considered, non-leaded brasses appear to be attractive albeit at slightly higher cost.

For existing leaded brass products, concerns have been raised over potential limitations of performance standards used to certify the products as "safe" in the marketplace. The ANSI/NSF 61 Section 9 test is the industry standard, and its protocol is critically evaluated from the perspective of the leaching solution chemistry. Testing indicated that the protocol water is reasonably representative of a typical water supply. However, some lower pH and lower alkalinity waters can be much more aggressive than the existing section 9 water, and for potable water with these characteristics, problems with higher than desired lead leaching may occur. It may be desirable to tighten the standard's pass/fail lead criterion in order to account for this problem in practice.

Several cases of childhood lead poisoning from water have been recently encountered, which prompted environmental assessments. It was visually obvious that some of the lead particles ingested by these children, present in water from the tap, were not completely dissolving in the standard method with weak acid recommended by the US EPA. A laboratory investigation proved that up to 80% particulate lead in water samples could be "missed" by the standard protocol. Unfortunately, tests with simulated gastric fluid revealed that much of this particulate lead would be bioavailable in the presence of chloride, warmer temperatures and lower pH inside the human stomach. It is recommended that water utilities be alert to this possible problem and that environmental assessments of lead poisoned children use stronger digestions to detect lead in water.

Several of the lead poisoning instances occurred after the utility changed both disinfectant chemicals (from chlorine to chloramine) and coagulant types. Although authorities initially thought chloramine was the cause based on experiences in Washington D.C., bench scale studies in this work proved that a change in coagulant from aluminum sulfate to either ferric chloride or polyaluminum chloride was in fact the main reason of the lead spikes. The reduction in sulfate and increase in chloride increased the chloride to sulfate mass ratio of the water supply. A higher chloride to sulfate mass ratio triggered much higher (2.3-40 times more) lead leaching from solder connected to copper pipe. The adverse effects of the increase in the ratio could not be eliminated by adding a corrosion inhibitor.



Particulate Lead, Solder, ANSI/NSF 61 Section 9, Sulfate, Chloride, Non-leaded Brass