Standard Updates Focus on Lead in Water Filtration Systems

Jan. 21, 2022

This article originally appeared in WQP June 2020 issue as "Lead Standard Updates" 

About the author:

Stefan Buck is general manager of Global Drinking Water Treatment Unit and Biosafety Cabinet Programs for NSF International. Buck can be reached at [email protected].

It seems that every few months stories of communities with excessive lead levels in their drinking water make headlines. Two high-profile examples since last summer came out of Newark, New Jersey, and Canada, leading authorities to issue large-scale bottled water distributions or pledge to speed up thousands of pipe replacements. This prompted citizens to consider filtration devices as a means to further protect their families. 

Lead Standard Updates

The number one type of inquiry consumers contact NSF International about is lead and options for reducing it in their water. Fortunately, new changes to the standards covering filtration and reverse osmosis (RO) systems strengthen certification requirements for lead reduction. NSF/ANSI 53: Drinking Water Treatment Units — Health Effects and NSF/ANSI 58: Reverse Osmosis Drinking Water Treatment Systems now require a new pass/fail criteria of 5 parts per billion (ppb) of lead in order for systems to earn certification.

In perhaps one of the most devastating and well-known cases in recent years, in Flint, Michigan, ongoing lead contamination levels exceeded — and in some testing, doubled — the U.S. EPA’s lead action level
of 15 ppb. 

Between 2015 and 2018, 30 million Americans were exposed to levels of lead that violated the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which analyzed EPA data. One city after another across the country in recent years has disclosed high lead in its drinking water supplies

The unfortunate reality is that this trend will continue because of aging infrastructure, including 6 million lead service lines nationwide, according to the NRDC. The best long-term solution is to replace lead pipes and service lines that feed municipal water into homes, which is a costly and time-consuming process. 

An Immediate Solution

Until then, the short-term solution in protecting consumers is the use of certified home filtration and RO systems that reduce lead. A variety of certified products, from filtered water pitchers to faucet-mounted devices to plumbed-in systems, are covered under NSF/ANSI 53 and NSF/ANSI 58.

Public health officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other organizations have concluded that there is no safe level of lead, so all efforts to further reduce the amount of lead intake are important. 

NSF/ANSI 53 and NSF/ANSI 58 are widely recognized voluntary consensus standards for evaluating and certifying drinking water treatment systems and RO systems for the reduction of contaminants from drinking water. The joint committee governing the American National Standards for drinking water treatment units late last year revised NSF/ANSI 53 and NSF/ANSI 58 to reduce the maximum allowable concentration of lead by 50%. Down from 10 ppb, the new criteria now matches Health Canada’s maximum allowable concentration level of 5 ppb. NSF International and all certification bodies test to the same stricter requirements set by the standards, which were effective immediately for all new product certifications.

As previously required, products covered under NSF/ANSI 53 and NSF/ANSI 58 must continue to meet other requirements set by the standards, including material safety and structural integrity. Types of systems include water pitchers with filters, faucet-mounted filters, under-sink filters, RO filters, countertop manual fill filters, countertop faucet filters connected to a sink, and refrigerator filters, as well as after-market refrigerator filters and integrated refrigerator filters.

Steps to Product Certification

To be certified by NSF International, drinking water filters and treatment devices are tested with challenge water containing 150 ppb lead, 10 times the EPA’s action level of 15 ppb and 30 times the NSF/ANSI 53 and NSF/ANSI 58 standard requirements. The filters are challenged at this level of contaminated water to simulate typical use during and beyond the filter’s claimed service life cycle. Additionally, NSF certified products are retested periodically, and NSF audits the manufacturing facilities every year.

Lead contamination of drinking water remains a critical issue, and regulations throughout the world continue to be promulgated to further reduce the allowable level of lead in drinking water. Health Canada lowered national regulatory maximum allowable concentration levels from 10 ppb to 5 ppb in March 2019. In the European Union, the most recent Drinking Water Directive agreement under review calls for 5 ppb for the parametric value of materials coming into contact with drinking water. Additionally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has established a 5 ppb limit on lead for bottled water.

Because premise plumbing is the primary source of lead contamination and it may prove difficult to achieve consistent lower levels via centralized treatment, strengthening the standards for certifying filtration and RO systems was important to further reduce potential health risks associated with lead ingestion. 

“Lead is exceptional in that most lead in drinking water arises from plumbing in buildings, and the remedy consists principally of removing plumbing and fittings containing it, which requires both time and money. In the interim, all practical measures to reduce total exposure to lead, including corrosion control, should be implemented. It is extremely difficult to achieve a concentration below 10 μg/L (10 ppb) by central conditioning, such as phosphate dosing,” states the 2011 WHO Lead in Drinking Water Background Document for Development of WHO Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality. 

About the Author

Stefan Buck

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