When measuring lead in water, check the temperature

Hazardous metal’s levels much higher in summer than winter, study finds

lead season

PIPE PROBLEM  Lead levels in drinking water vary seasonally as temperatures change, new research shows. Dissolved and undissolved lead concentrations in Washington, D.C., pipes were highest during summer and lowest during winter.

S. Masters et al/Environmental Science & Technology 2016

Lead contamination in drinking water can change with the seasons. Tracking lead levels in water pipes over several months, researchers discovered three times as much dissolved lead and six times as much undissolved lead in summer than in winter. The finding could help improve water testing, says study coauthor Sheldon Masters, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech and Corona Environmental Consulting in Philadelphia.

Masters and colleagues analyzed water contamination data collected from pipes in Washington, D.C., and Providence, R.I., and tested the dissolvability of lead in different water conditions. In many, but not all, homes and lab tests, the amount of lead leaching into drinking water rose as water temperature increased.

For pipes in Washington, average wintertime dissolved lead levels were 3.6 parts per billion, compared with 10.8 ppb during summer. Average undissolved lead concentrations varied from 7.6 ppb during winter to 48.4 ppb during summer. Each 1 degree Celsius rise in water temperature boosted dissolved lead levels by about 17 percent and lead particles by about 36 percent, the researchers report online April 14 in Environmental Science & Technology. Washington water temperature varied from about 5° to 30° C. Seasonal variations in lead were smaller than those expected from temperature changes alone, since other factors such as the amount of organic matter in water can also influence lead levels.

Some water systems could meet the regulatory standard of less than 15 ppb in winter while exceeding that threshold during warmer months, the researchers warn. Water testing prioritizes conditions with the highest risk for lead leaching. However, no current guidelines explicitly address seasonal variability. Lead consumption can cause severe health problems including birth defects, anemia and brain damage (SN: 3/19/16, p. 8).

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