Reconsidering Lead Corrosion in Drinking Water: Product Testing, Direct Chloramine Attack and Galvanic Corrosion


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Virginia Tech


The ban on lead plumbing materials in the Safe Drinking Water Act (1986) and the EPA Lead and Copper Rule (1991) have successfully reduced lead contamination of potable water supplies. The success of these regulations gave rise to a belief that serious lead contamination was an important past problem that had been solved, and that additional fundamental research was therefore unnecessary. This work carefully re-examined the lead contamination issue from the perspective of 1) new regulations causing a shift from chlorine to chloramine disinfectant, 2) assumptions guiding sampling strategies, 3) existing performance standards for brass, and 4) galvanically driven corrosion of lead bearing plumbing materials. The results were instrumental in uncovering and understanding a serious problem with lead contamination in Washington, D.C.

A critical reading of the literature indicates that chloramines can accelerate corrosion of lead bearing materials and increase lead contamination of water. When a new sampling protocol was conceived and used in Washington homes to assess the nature of the problem, hazardous levels of lead were found to be present in some drinking water samples. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, lead was not always highest in first draw samples, but often increased with flushing. This has several important implications for monitoring and public health. For instance, well-intentioned public education materials were causing consumers to drink water containing very high levels of lead in some circumstances. Laboratory and field-testing proved that chloramines were causing serious lead corrosion problems. That testing also discovered that, unbeknownst to scientists and utilities, free chlorine itself can act as a corrosion inhibitor, reducing lead solubility and contamination of water. The net result is that changing disinfectant from free chlorine to chloramine can sometimes trigger serious lead contamination of water.

While the worst problems with lead in Washington, D.C. came from the lead services, significant levels of lead were occasionally sampled from homes with solders or brass as the lead source. This prompted re-evaluation of the ANSI/NSF 61, Section 8 standard, which is relied on to protect public health from in-line brass plumbing devices that might leach excessive lead to potable water. In-depth study of the standard revealed serious flaws arising from use of a phosphate buffer in the test waters and a failure to control carbonate dissolution from the atmosphere. Due to these deficiencies, small devices made of pure lead could actually pass the performance test. The public therefore has no assurance that devices passing NSF Section 8 testing are safe and reforms to the standard are obviously needed.

Other problems arise from connecting copper pipe to lead bearing plumbing in practice. The copper is cathodic and dramatically accelerates corrosion of the lead anode via a galvanic current. Corrosion and hydrolysis of released Pb²⁺ can lower pH near the surface of the lead and increase its solubility. A similar galvanic effect can arise from cupric ions present in the water via deposition corrosion mechanism. In cases where part of a lead service line is replaced by copper pipe, the galvanic corrosion effect can create a serious long-term problem with lead contamination. Such partial lead service line replacements are occurring in many US cities and the practice should be stopped.

Lead contamination of potable water is not only a problem of the past but also of the present. While additional research is necessary before regulators, utilities and homeowners can anticipate and mitigate such problems with confidence, this work provides sound fundamental basis for future progress.



galvanic, lead and copper rule, Chloramines, ANSI/NSF 61 Section 8