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Should I be concerned about lead in my water?

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The question

How concerned do I need to be about high levels of lead in my water? My neighbours just tested their water and the reading was above normal.

The answer

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Lead in your water supply is a valid concern, especially given your neighbour's high reading. Lead is found in air, dust, food, water and many consumer products.

Long term exposure to lead can cause health issues such as high blood pressure, weakness, anemia, mood changes and inability to concentrate.

Due to strict governmental regulations established by Health Canada and different levels of government, drinking water is not a significant source of lead exposure in the country.

The Canadian limit for lead in drinking water is 0.010mg/L. Although this is the level that is regulated by government for water leaving treatment plants, as water passes through piping and into homes it may come in contact with lead piping along the way and have higher than acceptable levels.

If you live in a neighborhood where the homes were built before 1950, there is a higher risk that the piping contains lead and the water may be contaminated. Although the pipes within the home may be non-lead based, the piping that leads to the house may still have lead.

(These pipes are generally under municipal jurisdiction and most abide by the governmental regulations by changing them to avoid lead exposure but there are some areas that remain unchanged.)

Given your neighbour's levels, I suggest contacting your municipality or water utility provider and ask if there is lead piping in the area.

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Some tips to minimize exposure include:

- Run your water for a few minutes in the morning before drinking. Lead levels will increase with the amount of time the water is left standing in pipes for more than a few hours. Store water in a pitcher for drinking to avoid wastage of water.

- Use cold water for drinking and cooking: Hot water contains higher levels of lead than cold water.

- Ask your municipality to replace the pipes leading to the house; however, pipes within a home are often the responsibility of the homeowner. This can be costly so one alternative is to use a certified device that removes lead. Choose the taps that you most often use for drinking and after installing, retest to check that they have reduced lead levels.

In addition to changing your pipes, if you are having any symptoms related to potential lead exposure, visit your doctor to review options for testing for lead in your blood. For more information, visit Health Canada's website for excellent information and resources available on lead exposure and prevention.

Send family doctor Sheila Wijayasinghe your questions at She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

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Read more Q&As from Dr. Wijayasinghe.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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