Identifying Lead in Drinking Water Pipes and Fittings

According to new research, exposure to traces of lead (Pb) may be linked to as many deaths as caused by smoking, and it has been associated with 412,000 premature deaths in the United States annually. Due to its malleability and its relative abundance in the earth’s crust, lead has been used for many centuries to produce pipes for water supply. Only in the 20th century did scientific research demonstrate that lead was detrimental to the health of human. Lead, whether ingested or inhaled, can lead to damages to the nervous system, kidneys, and brain, specifically in pregnant women and young children. X-ray fluorescence (XRF) technology has a major role to play in protecting the health of humans.

Corrosion of components in water installations (for example, lead solder, leaded-brass fixtures, and lead pipes) results in the entry of lead into drinking water. Homes constructed before 1980 most probably have copper pipes connected by a lead solder. In order to prevent lead from discharging into drinking water, many pipes used for the supply of potable water have been replaced by copper since it is sustainable, durable, impermeable, and corrosion-resistant.

However, leaded solder is still commonly used, and some brass fittings and faucets still contain lead, specifically in aging water infrastructure systems set up before corrosion control measures were introduced. Since the fabrication of lead-free fittings is more expensive, components containing lead continue to be used for other water installations and in regions where safety regulations are not yet implemented.

Around the World

In 1974, the Safe Water Drinking Act was introduced in the United States to guarantee that public drinking water fulfills stringent safety requirements. In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a regulation called Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) in the United States to control both copper and lead in drinking water. However, recent news headlines hint at the fact that the presence of copper, lead, and other metals in drinking water is still a problem. Therefore, the U.S. EPA is seeking to update lead water pipe standards to guarantee safe drinking water access for communities.

An extensive safety overhaul of drinking water is now taking place in Hong Kong. The government is looking to implement standards beyond guidelines set by the World Health Organization after learning an unpleasant lesson from a lead contamination scandal in 2015 and threats of a second scare back in late 2017.

According to Defra, since the 1970s, the use of lead has been banned throughout Europe. While lead pipes have been prohibited for this purpose for 40 years, it is likely that in older properties, it remains a part, or all, of the underground service pipe linking the water main in the street to a kitchen tap possibly made from lead.

Using XRF Technology as a Solution

X-ray fluorescence (XRF) is an established, non-destructive method that allows the determination of the elemental composition of a variety of materials, such as metal alloys, within seconds. The X-MET8000 series of handheld analyzers from Hitachi High-Tech can be used for the fast testing of metal plumbing components in prevailing and new water installations. The X-MET8000 can also be used for manufacturing quality control and materials incoming inspection, and to make sure that the correct components are chosen in the warehouse before installation or repair.

Two-step Guide for Checking for Lead

1. Point and Shoot

Testing is made extremely simple by the handheld XRF analyzer: the analyzer’s nose has to be just positioned on the part to test, and the trigger pressed for measurement. Results are displayed almost instantly. The display of results can be customized to display pass/fail messages when a given element is above or below a level defined by the user (for example, show FAIL if Pb > 0.25%), facilitating quick decision making.

2. Use a Small-Spot Collimator Option for Measuring Solders

Since the solder joints can be narrow, the integrated collimator can be used to make sure that only the solder, not the surrounding material, is being tested. The optional built-in camera assists in positioning the analyzer properly on the solder joint. The X-MET8000 Expert and Optimum models from Hitachi High-Tech come with the small-spot collimator option.

Handheld analyzers offer quick and dependable material identification and chemistry for positive material identification (PMI) inspection in addition to manufacturing quality assurance and on-site verification of existing water supply installations. Their ergonomics, robustness, and user-friendliness make them the preferred tool for any metal testing applications.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Hitachi High-Tech Analytical Science.

For more information on this source, please visit Hitachi High-Tech Analytical Science.

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