Chloramine, Chlorine, Lead and Pipes: How Water Treatment Turned Toxic

What do the most Common Water Treatment Chemicals–Chlorine and Chloramine–Have to do with Lead in Water?


Flint’s water crisis is a disastrous story of negligence and environmental injustice. After the city switched its water source, lead–a neurotoxic metal– began leaching from pipes into people’s drinking water. Families drinking tap water found their children had increased blood lead levels. While the mayor of Flint announced in April that the water is finally safe to drink again, many are still skeptical and concerned.

How did simply switching from one river to another river have such drastic effects on people’s water quality? TapScore has written this guide to help you understand why switching water sources (e.g. in Flint) or water disinfectants (in the case of D.C. water) can cause lead to leach from pipes, what the dangers are, and how to protect yourself.

The Science Behind Lead in Flint and D.C.

To understand how lead leaches into water, we first need to know what water disinfectants are and how they can affect drinking water and human health. We’ll bring you through the science behind lead leaching in pipes through the stories of two different cities that made changes to their water: DC switched its disinfectant, while Flint switched its water source.

What Are Water Disinfectants?

The water that enters our homes is sourced from natural rivers, lakes, and man-made reservoirs. This water contains microorganisms, organic matter, soil, naturally occuring metals, and much more. The particulate matter and natural elements can be filtered out using physical barriers (e.g. reverse osmosis, carbon filtration, or other filtration methods). Microorganisms such as viruses and bacteria, however, must be killed using a disinfectant.

Chlorine is the most common disinfectant, but other disinfectants include chlorine dioxide, chloramines, UV light, and ozone. Since its introduction in the late 1800s, chlorine disinfection has become a major public health accomplishment, responsible for lowering the rates of infectious diseases such as typhoid, hepatitis, and cholera. Unfortunately, chlorine can also react with other naturally occurring materials in water to form disinfection byproducts (DBPs), which can be harmfulto long-term health. Regulation of DBPs inspired the use of chloramines as an alternative disinfectant because it forms less of the most common forms of DBPs. Chloramines are formed when ammonia is added to chlorine. But, as you may have guessed–chloramine has its own unintended consequences.

Switching from Chloramine to Chlorine

D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) switched from chlorine to chloramine to reduce risk of DBPs. Shortly thereafter, high lead levels became a concern–but WASA was slow to respond and communication to households failed to adequately portray the urgency of the water quality problem. Researchers (led by Dr. Marc Edwards, who later got involved in Flint) found that, between 2001-2003, blood lead levels in children were four times higher when compared to the year 2000. Edwards claims that D.C.’s lead crisis is 20-30 times worse that of Flint – with lead concentrations found to be three times higher than those in Flint and 6.5 times the amount of people exposed.

After these findings, the city of D.C. reverted from chloramine back to free chlorine in 2004. They subsequently found that water lead levels in some samples were up to 10-fold lower and that almost all samples were below the EPA limit of 15 parts per billion (ppb). WASA concluded that chloramine was not solely responsible for lead leaching, but that the absence of chlorine resulted in pipe corrosion.

Lead (or any metal) leaching occurs when corrosive water enters an old pipeline and easily reacts with the metal pipes, creating metal ions that enter the water. Chlorine can combine with lead to form an oxide, which acts as a passivation (protective) layer on the inside of the pipes. This protective layer was protecting pipes from corrosive water.

These findings left D.C. with a public health predicament: neither option was entirely safe. Fortunately, compounds such as zinc orthophosphate exist to help corrosion control while using chloramine as a disinfectant by reacting with pipes to form a passivation layer. While D.C. has kept corrosion control on a priority list, thousands of lead pipelines still remain in the city’s distribution system.

Switching Water Sources

When Detroit Water and Sewer decided to switch its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, the goal was to save costs. The city planned to switch to Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron, but they had about a year before the project was complete–so they turned to Flint River. As we now know, engineers and officials failed to adequately manage the new source.

Health data showed that the number of children with lead levels in their blood had increased from 2.4% to 4.9% after the water source switch. One sample of Flint’s water had a record breaking level of 13,200 ppb lead, which is almost 900 times higher than the EPA limit. Lead is neurotoxic and dangerous for anyone, but especially for children because it can stunt their development and lead to behavioral problems and decreased IQ.

Lead leaching into drinking water shares similar water chemistry in Flint as in DC. The original water source that came in treated from Detroit had added orthophosphate to account for lead pipes, which created a strong passivation layer made of phosphate minerals. When Flint started treating its own water, they did not add orthophosphate and they did not adequately control the pH of their new water. When pH is too low (more acidic) in the absence of orthophosphate, lead can leach into the drinking water. The protection layer was quickly corroded, exposing Flint’s lead pipes and leading to lead leaching in water.

How can I protect myself?

An estimated 15-25 million homes are still connected to lead pipelines laid before they were banned in 1986. While most water systems actively manage the water quality and test for lead, the stories of Flint and D.C. illuminate how quickly things can go wrong. Hopefully, any metal leaching situation you may encounter is not as extreme. There are some things that you can do to protect yourself, depending on whether you are a private well user or are a public water system customer.

Public Water System

  • Check up on your local water treatment plant to ensure they are conditioning (filtering & disinfecting) your water properly
  • Encourage your city to replace old pipes, especially if they’re lead
  • If you own your house and are able to replace old pipes, faucets, and fixtures within your home, do so, or
  • Test your water for lead and use a (reverse osmosis) water filter if you have a lead concentration that the product can treat

Private Well

  • Keep up with conditioning (i.e. filtering & disinfecting) your water properly for the type and age of pipes that you have
  • If you drill a new well, monitor your water quality before and after switching to a new source
  • Replace old pipes, faucets, and fixtures in your home and within your well if they’re lead or
  • Consult the experts! Tapscore offers a lead specific test as well as an Advanced Well Water Test, and we can help discuss treatment options with you that will work for your unique water composition and chemistry.

More questions?

Feel free to chat with us a hello@simplewater.us!














Introduction To SimpleWater Lead Series

Lead in Water

If you’ve been tuned into national news at all, you heard about it: Lead.

And it isn’t just the publicized disaster in Flint, Michigan, either. The lead crisis extends far beyond the confines of that city, with recent water rests at homes and public schools across the country dredging up the reality that there are few among us currently enjoying sanctuary from this public health threat.

In fact, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data obtained by CNBC reveals that only nine U.S. states report lead levels in compliance with  federal drinking water standards. Those states that are suffering from lead violations in drinking water put their citizens—particularly children—at risk for fertility impairment, vomiting, anemia, hearing loss, kidney disease, and developmental delays, among other ailments.

With the public discourse so focused on the lead threat—even the 2016 United States presidential race turned its attention to the health crisis—we wanted to create a one-stop special lead series for you to learn about what we know so far. We also mapped home age and water corrosiveness as indicators of risk so that you can check out your neighborhood and assess whether or not lead or heavy metals might be a risk in your water–see the Simple Water Lead Map.

Get up to date on the lead public health crisis that swept the country in 2016-17 with the following articles:

Flint, Michigan & Corrosive River Water: Flint remains a city-wide public health crisis that has yet to be remedied. Inside, we discuss the grave mistakes made in Michigan that we all stand to gain so much in learning from.

Erin Brockovich as Spokesperson: We examine how Erin Brockovich’s involvement in the largest direct-action lawsuit in history prepped her to intervene on behalf of Flint, and how her involvement helped motivate President Obama to mobilize the National Guard and declare a state of emergency in Michigan.

Lead in U.S. Cities: Which cities are America’s most egregious water quality violators? We break down the story on municipalities encountering difficulties meeting federal public health guidelines for lead levels in drinking water.

Lead in U.S. Public School Water: Lead in drinking water isn’t just a problem for Flint, Michigan. Learn how America’s public schools are at risk, and peruse a roundup of school districts recently affected.

Young Children and Lead Water Contamination: The Harmful Consequences: It’s an unfortunate fact that the youngest in our society are the most susceptible to environmental hazards, including lead. We discuss why lead in drinking water is so perilous to our children, and the specific adverse health effects they may encounter as a result of exposure.

Can You Trust Store-bought Lead Water Testing Kits? Not all lead water testing kits are created equal, as reporter Alison Young for USA TODAY quickly discovered. Many testing kits are backed by suspect “certifications,” and either rely on analysis from labs with questionable credentials or include testing procedures that often give rise to user error.

As we continue to follow lead in water around the nation, we’ll dutifully keep you updated. We've done our homework bringing together data on home age and corrosive water to map out areas across the nation that might be at risk for lead. Check out the Simple Water Lead Map here. Check back with us often to stay current  on the latest news and developments. 

And of course, if you’re ready to take action now to learn what’s in your water, check out Tap Score. Tap Score makes it simple for you to screen your home’s drinking water for more than 100 known contaminants, including lead. We’ll tell you what’s in your water and what you can do about it. Learn more about our testing packages now.

SimpleWater: We Test, Therefore We Know.

A note from the caring folks at SimpleWater — We are a water testing, analysis and health data company intent on providing the best water testing, analysis and reporting service ever created. 

We serve homes, families and businesses asking: “what’s in my water, what does it mean, and how do I ensure the safety of what I’m drinking?”

SimpleWater’s national team of certified laboratory scientists, engineers, health experts and designers provide each customer with a personalized Tap Score Water Quality Report. SimpleWater’s Tap Score is the Nation’s First Smart Water Testing Service for affordable and informative contaminant screening and personalized treatment recommendations.

Call Anytime :: 888 34 MY WATER (+1-888-346-9928)


Find Out What’s In Your Water at MyTapScore.Com

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.


SimpleWater: We Test, Therefore We Know.

A note from the caring folks at SimpleWater — We are a water testing, analysis and health data company intent on providing the best water testing, analysis and reporting service ever created. 

We serve homes, families and businesses asking: “what’s in my water, what does it mean, and how do I ensure the safety of what I’m drinking?”

SimpleWater’s national team of certified laboratory scientists, engineers, health experts and designers provide each customer with a personalized Tap Score Water Quality Report. SimpleWater’s Tap Score is the Nation’s First Smart Water Testing Service for affordable and informative contaminant screening and personalized treatment recommendations.

Call Anytime :: 888 34 MY WATER (+1-888-346-9928)

Find Out What’s In Your Water at MyTapScore.Com