Lead in Drinking Water

This section covers the general health risks of lead in drinking water, regulatory efforts and lead risk mitigation procedures at Princeton University.

Jump directly to:
Health Risks of Lead in Drinking Water
Source of Lead in Drinking Water
Regulation of Lead in Drinking Water
Sampling for Lead in Drinking Water at Princeton University

Health Risks of Lead in Drinking Water

Children under the age of six are most at risk from overexposure to lead. Exposure can cause behavioral issues, learning disabilities, hearing impairment, low IQ and poor classroom performance. 

Pregnant women and their fetuses are also vulnerable to lead exposure, as high levels can harm the fetus, causing lower birth weight and a slowdown in normal mental and physical development.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most studies show that exposure to lead-contaminated water alone would not be likely to elevate blood lead levels in most adults—even exposure to water with a lead content close to the EPA action level for lead. Risks vary, however, depending upon the individual, and overexposure in adults can lead to an increased risk for high blood pressure, kidney disease, stroke and memory problems.   

Source of Lead in Drinking Water

When lead is found in tap water, it is usually due to leaching of lead from internal plumbing. In 1986, Congress banned the use of lead solder containing greater than 0.2% lead and restricted the lead content in faucets, pipe and other plumbing materials to 8.0%. In 2011 Congress passed the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act (RLDWA) revising the definition of “lead-free” by lowering the maximum lead content of the wetted surfaces of plumbing products (such as pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings and fixtures) from 8% to a weighted average of 0.25%. Components of plumbing systems in older homes, particularly those built prior to 1930, and municipal water distributions may still contain lead.  

Lead enters the drinking water as a result of corrosion, or wearing away, of lead-containing materials in water distribution systems and household plumbing. Corrosive water dissolves lead from pipes and solder while the water is in contact with the plumbing components. As a result, lead concentrations in drinking water are typically highest in the first water flushed from the tap. Lead levels decrease as the water is run. 

Regulation of Lead in Drinking Water

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set an Action Level for lead in public drinking water at 15 µg/L (micrograms per liter). A microgram per liter is one one-millionth of a gram of substance per liter of solution. A  µg/L of sugar in water is about the same as a teaspoon of sugar in 2,100,000 gallons of water. 
The University’s water is provided by New Jersey American Water. The utility takes steps to reduce the potential for lead to leach from pipes into the water by adding a corrosion inhibitor or reducing the acidity of water that leaves their treatment facility. 

American Water monitors the concentration of lead at their treatment facility and in a representative number of homes they serve. If the concentration of lead in water from more than 10% of these homes exceeds 15 µg/L, New Jersey American Water must provide public education on the lead problem and treat the water at the treatment plant to make it less corrosive.  

Sampling for Lead in Drinking Water at Princeton University

The University has typically tested for lead content in water when requested by parents or guardians of children less than 6 years of age and when recommended by the child’s pediatrician.  

In April 2016, staff from the University’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) collected water samples from taps in classrooms and the kitchen at the daycare facility at 171 Broadmead. Lead content in the samples was below the limit of detection and below the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Action Level. The lab's limit of detection is 3.0 µg/L (micrograms per liter). The EPA Action Level for lead in drinking water is 15 µg/L.

During the months of August and September 2016, EHS, with the assistance of an environmental consultant, assessed the concentration of lead in a representative sample of drinking water locations throughout the University. Water sample locations were chosen based on the following criteria: 

  • likelihood that children < 6 years of age  regularly consume water from the tap
  • usage of specific outlets 
  • age of building
  • type of outlet

In total, 77 samples were collected from faucets, drinking water fountains and bottle filling stations in undergraduate residential halls and campus dining units, athletic facilities, academic and administrative buildings and graduate student residences.

The concentration of lead in all samples collected from drinking water taps during the months of August and September, 2016 was below the EPA Action Level of 15 µg/L.

If you would like additional information about the sampling program, please contact Environmental Health and Safety at x8-5294 or [email protected].


Shaundree Davis
Assistant Director, Environmental Health