Can You Trust Store-Bought Lead Water Testing Kits?

SimpleWater Can You Trust Testing Kits?

In 2016, Alison Young of USA TODAY decided to investigate whether her 136-year-old home suffered from lead water contamination.

Homes serviced with lead pipes, fixtures, or solder are at risk of lead contamination, regardless of the quality of the water before it reaches your home. Sagely noting that “even if your water company is in compliance with federal lead contamination regulations, it doesn’t mean the water in your home is safe,” Young cited her desire to learn more about the potential threats facing her own home’s water supply.

Unfortunately, Young was quickly put off by the process of working with her local utility. Tired of receiving vague answers and delays from her water company, Virginia American Water, Young decided to take matters into her own hands with a home water testing kit.

The Pro-Lab Water Testing Kit Controversy

Young initially turned to Pro-Lab’s lead testing kit, which she discovered while browsing her local Home Depot.

The Pro-Lab Lead in Water Test Kit cost Young $9.99 at retail. This does not include a $30.00 lab fee that is charged once the user sends their home’s water vials off for testing.

Promising an “EPA approved laboratory method,” the water test kit’s packaging reads “IAC2 Certified,” although the fine print discloses that this acronym stands for the “International Associations of Certified Indoor Air Consultants.”

Immediately concerned over the nature of this certification and how it might apply to water tests, Young attempted over the course of two days to get in touch with Pro-Lab representatives. Eventually, Pro-Lab Chief Executive James McDonell contacted Young, and admitted that the International Associations of Certified Indoor Air Consultants “doesn’t have expertise in water testing”, and instead works with home inspectors. (Although per their website, lead issues do fall under their general purview.) McDonell asserted that they endorse all of Pro-Lab’s test kits.

Through spokesmen Stephen Holmes and Kylie Mason, both Home Depot and the Florida Attorney General’s Office, respectively, have informed Young they are investigating the claims put forth by Pro-Lab and their Lead In Water Test Kit regarding the kit’s efficacy and certifications.

Pro-Lab: forced to outsource testing

In the interim, Young did some digging, and found records revealing that Pro-Lab dished out $20,000 to the Florida Attorney General in 2008 for misrepresenting their Lead Surface Test Kit as a trusted source for EPA, when no such evidence existed. Additionally, Young claims these records show that Pro-Lab is “no longer certified” as a drinking water lab.

Pro-Lab’s water testing is now outsourced to Florida Spectrum, which is currently certified. They tout being the first South Florida lab to be certified by the Florida Department of Health.

While Pro-Lab is no longer certified to conduct their own testing as a drinking water lab, their website still claims a number of health-related certifications, inspections, licenses, recognitions, accreditations, affiliations, endorsements, and proficiency tests from various bodies, including the The Lead and Environmental Hazards Association (LEHA) and the National Lead Abatement and Assessment Council (NLAAC). However, Pro-Lab does not divulge what agency or association provides which certification, endorsement, et cetera. No specifics are provided.

A Trial with Two Other At-Home Lead Testing Kits

Inspired by Young’s findings, we decided to conduct a bit of our own research on home lead testing kits. The following are two examples:

H20 OK Plus Test Kit

Cost: This is another water testing kit that Young herself tested. It’s available at a number of prominent retailers, including Home Depot ($28.98 plus tax) and Lowe’s ($24.98 plus tax).

Testing Attributes: H20 OK Plus Test Kit contains 23 drinking-water-quality tests. To perform the test at home you’re instructed to put two droppers worth of water from your tap into the test vial.  Then, you drop the lead test strip alongside the pesticide test strip into the water vial.  Next, you wait 10 minutes (not unlike a home pregnancy test) to see instant results about the presence or absence of lead and pesticides in your tap water.

Weaknesses: Manufacturer Mosser Lee's website notes that the test tube and a recording log for cataloging test results are included. However, Young notes that while instructions for reading the results are also included, there are no instructions on how to take the water sample in the first place.

This is particularly worrisome considering Mosser Lee’s own statement at the bottom of their product page asserts:

H20 OK and H2O OK Plus Test Kits tests are screening tests and are not meant to certify water as safe or unsafe for drinking. LabTech tests provide approximate results only when used in strict accordance with instructions. LabTech and its affiliates expressly disclaim any liability resulting from the use of these products, failure to follow instructions or reliance of test results.

It is concerning that results are dependent on strict accordance with incomplete instructions.

Additionally, the company that developed H20 OK Plus Test Kit’s test-strip technology, Silver Lake, explained to Young through spokesperson Mark Geisberg that the test doesn’t test for “particulate lead,” which are small grains of lead that still pose a health risk.

Certifications: Silver Lake’s spokesperson told Young and USA TODAY that no government agency certifies or verifies these types of home lead test kits. As the vials are never sent off for testing, there is no outside lab involved that carries any certifications, either.

PurTest Lead Test

We checked into yet another at-home lead testing kit option, the PurTest Lead Test from American Water Service LLC out of North Carolina.

Cost: Amazon lists PurTest at $16 currently, although other outlets list the price as low as $12.

Testing Attributes: Describing itself as a “rapid immunoassay test of lead in drinking water,” the PurTest Lead Test claims it can “detect lead at very low levels, even below the EPA action level of 15 ppb.” They also promise results in 10 minutes, and guide users to their website if they have any questions.

Users must fill a sample vial with their home drinking water and then place a test strip within the vial. After ten minutes, blue lines appear on the strip. Depending on which of the two blue lines is darkest, users will be alerted as to whether their water is contaminated with lead.

Weaknesses: PurTest notes in their documentation that “PurTest is a screening test and cannot be used to certify water as safe or unsafe for drinking.” It provides “approximate results.” Like Mosser Lee’s H20 OK Plus Test Kit, the PurTest Lead Test is a do-it-yourself home test that relies on the user to both correctly administer the test and interpret the results.

Certifications: The front of the box for PurTest says “Laboratory Certified,” but it’s unclear through available online documentation what that certification entailed. Both PurTest and the American Water Service list themselves as members of the Water Quality Association, although it is unclear whether PurTest is backed by a WQA-certification.

Double Check before you Test

If there’s one thing Young’s research for USA TODAY and our own follow-up digging indicate, it is that you can’t fully trust a lead or water testing kit to deliver reliable and accurate results without doing some homework first:

  1. Compare & Review. Before buying, it's important to compare across test kits, read reviews, and research the at-home kit company.

  2. Certifications & Instructions. If you decide on an at-home test, make sure you understand an at-home test's certifications and instructions.

Finally, even if a test is adequately performed at home, the job ends here. At home test-kits deliver information about a handful of contaminants about your water quality, so these test do not paint the full picture of what is in your water. Additionally, water quality can change over time, so be sure to re-test if you taste, smell, or hear about any changes in the water quality. 

The ideal case: go through a state-certified lab

SimpleWater recommends having your water tested through the use of a lead test kit recommended by the state or other government authority, and analyzed by a water quality laboratory accredited by the same government authority.

 

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