Do Your Shower Fixtures Have Lead in Them?

The short answer is: yes, your shower fixtures likely have lead in them. Surprised? Before you spiral into a shopping frenzy to replace your shower plumbing fixtures, allow us to explain why lead is still used in plumbing components, and what you can do to protect yourself from lead exposure and poisoning.

Lead use in tub and shower fixtures

the first plumbing systems used lead for fixtures

Modern lead use in tub and shower fixtures can be traced back all the way to the first plumbing systems in Rome. In fact, the word “plumbing” is derived from the latin word for lead: “plumbum”. Lead is malleable enough to be easily shaped into pipes and fittings, but degrades slowly and is super resistant to holes, making it ideal for delivering water.

Documented cases of lead poisoning have been around for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until 1978 that the US acknowledged lead’s toxicity as a potent neurotoxin that is especially dangerous for developing brains, and banned its widespread use in paint. Almost a decade later, the Safe Water Drinking Act (SWDA) was amended to require the use of “lead free” pipe, solder, and flux in water and plumbing systems providing water for human consumption.

Before the ban, solder for plumbing joints delivering potable water often contained up to 50% lead content. The new law called for an alternative, and the result was lead-free brass. 

Lead-free brass

After the mandate, manufacturers primarily switched to silicon and copper alloys to replace the majority of the lead content. But instead of cutting it out altogether, lead continues to be added in very low concentrations because it's so uniquely suited to prevent even the smallest holes from forming, essentially ensuring pipes or fixtures are free from leaks. This makes lead-free brass interesting, because it’s not necessarily free of lead. 

“Lead-free” means that the amount of lead that leaches from plumbing fixtures into drinking water is below a certain threshold for all wetted surfaces. In 1986, that threshold was 8% or less, but this number was significantly reduced to 0.25% in 2011 by the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act.

Lead-free certification

All plumbing fixtures sold in the US that are used in drinking water systems must meet the requirements set by NSF/ANSI 61: an “American National Standard that establishes minimum health-effects…for the chemical contaminants and impurities that are indirectly imparted to drinking water from products, components and materials used in drinking water systems”. NSF/ANSI 61 is used to enforce the lowered lead leaching thresholds established in 2011. For a full rundown on NSF, ANSI and other certifiers, head over to our article on bathroom plumbing fixture certifications

To ensure that lead levels in your plumbing fixtures stay below these guidelines, it is crucial to only purchase lead-free brass from reputable companies. Cheaply made alternatives, which are extremely common on platforms like Amazon, are required to comply with the standard, but less stringent oversight makes it far more likely to receive products that are not actually compliant.   

Despite the massive lead reduction brought about by these standards, lead’s persistence in the water system still requires actionable steps on the part of consumers to combat lead exposure in the home.

Common sources of lead exposure in the home

Lead in enamel glaze used on antique tub and shower fixtures

The introduction of new lead pipes into water systems was banned in 1986, but there was no requirement to remove (or even inventory) existing lead service lines included in the decision. Lead service lines are the pipes that carry water from treatment plants to homes and businesses. Now, nearly three decades later, states are admitting they have little to no information regarding where and how many corroding lead pipes are still in use. 

It’s estimated that all 50 states are affected by some amount of lead service lines numbering at least 12 million in total. The issue is not that these lines are inherently leaching harmful levels of lead at all times, but any addition or disruption to the water supply (such as chlorine alternatives like monochloramine or a burst water main) can cause sudden corrosion and surging lead levels.

Lead is also found in many porcelain enamel glazes used prior to 1978, affecting common household items like sinks and bathtubs. If you live in an older home or have antique tub and shower fixtures, you could be exposed to lead as the enamel breaks down or chips over time. If you are renting or unable to pay the upfront cost of removing and replacing your bathroom fixtures, there are companies that specialize in resurfacing these appliances for a fraction of the cost. 

How to protect yourself from lead in drinking water

corroding lead service lines leach lead into water

If you are unsure about the status of your home’s lead levels in the water, you should start by testing for lead in your water and finding out if you have a lead service line. You can buy an at-home lead testing kit that will tell you in a matter of seconds if the lead level is above or below EPA guidelines. We recommend this kit, which tests for a variety of contaminants including chlorine and lead.

(Amazon affiliate link)

You can see us put our water to the test in this step by step breakdown of the process: 

Your best bet for a more in-depth understanding is to contact your local water utility and have a certified laboratory conduct the testing. Some water utilities even have programs that provide a lead water test kit or pay for lead water testing. They should also be able to give you a list of certified laboratories to send your water sample to. The price typically ranges from $15-$100 –  be sure to ask if your water utility will cover the cost.

Also ask about lead service lines in your area, but be prepared for an incomplete picture as this information has only come into the spotlight with legislation proposed by the White House in 2021. The bipartisan action plan aims to remove and replace all lead service lines in the next decade. 

Knowing the amount of lead in your water can help determine next steps, which might include blood tests for everyone in the household. Here are several simple routine hacks that can significantly reduce your potential for toxic lead exposure: 

  • Flush your water before cooking or drinking – a few seconds is better than nothing at all, but closer to 30 seconds is ideal
  • Use only cold water for cooking, drinking and making baby formula – warm to hot water releases more lead from pipes and faucets than cold water 
  • Clean your faucet’s aerator – screwed onto the end of most sink faucets is a metal screen with holes that help shape the water spray to prevent splashing. Regularly cleaning this screen keeps sediment and debris (which could include lead particles) from contaminating your water

Keep in mind that even if your lead water testing shows acceptable EPA levels, lead content is subject to surge unexpectedly based on changes to your municipal water supply. The good news is that you can buy highly effective filters for lead so you know you are always protected. 

Here’s what to look for:

Our top recommendations for filters to remove lead

Countertop filters to remove lead

If you are wanting a whole-house filtration system, reverse osmosis and activated carbon are the best options for targeting lead. Unfortunately, both of these filters are costly and invasive, making them not ideal for renters or individuals not in a position to completely overhaul their water purifying system at the moment. A home water distiller can also be used, but you have to distill the water as you go and it's pricey as well. 

You can find many reasonably priced countertop filters (starting around $80) and under sink water filtration systems ($150-$300 range) that will effectively remove lead and other contaminants for drinking, cooking, and washing in the kitchen. 

Lead in Shower Fixtures

Up until now, we’ve mostly been discussing plumbing fixtures that ARE subject to the rigorous NSF/ANSI 61 standard. So what about the fixtures that are exempt? It might seem surprising, but shower fixtures are not covered by federal and state lead regulations because the water is not intended for human consumption. Makes sense on paper, but in practice the reality can be very different (we can’t be the only ones with toddlers who insist on drinking bath water every time their parents turn around!).

Regardless of legality, your lead exposure from shower fixtures shouldn't be an unregulated mystery. Opting for a high quality shower filter with proven results will remove heavy metals like lead while also eliminating the other toxic elephant in the bathroom: chlorine.

The truth is, the majority of shower filters out there are marketing ploys that won't do a thing to improve your water quality.  Filtration media – the substance found inside of the filter – is what determines whether or not a shower filter will be effective specifically in showers. For instance, many shower filters contain activated carbon (which works wonders in others settings), but there is ample evidence that water above 80° damages this particular filtration media and actually releases contaminants back into the water.

Best shower filter for lead and chlorine

The most effective filtration media designed for warm to hot water and scientifically proven to remove heavy metals, chlorine, and bacteria is KDF 55 and Calcium Sulfite. You also want to check the amount of filtration media used. More is definitely more in this situation, as increased surface area means there is enough contact time for the redox process that is responsible for purifying the water – and your filter cartridges will last longer! 

All Metal Shower Filter to Remove Lead

Sourcing the best filtration media and customizing the perfect ratio became the core of how we developed the highest quality shower filter on the market. You won't find any gimmicky 10, 12, or 20 stages of materials that don't actually make a difference. We packed in 450 grams of our proprietary blend of KDF 55 and Calcium Sulfite to remove the most contaminants without affecting water pressure.

The housing is made from durable, lead-free brass so you'll only have to worry about replacing the cartridge (and not the whole filter!) for years to come. It's 3rd party tested and proven to give you a safer, cleaner shower. 

While filters are an essential final defense, removing as many contaminants as possible from your home is still a priority.  

Shower fixtures you can trust

You can't talk about showering and consumer safety without looking at all of the materials being used in the shower heads and hoses that are delivering your water. Emerging concerns about biofilm – the buildup of resilient bacterial colonies that are linked to respiratory and skin issues – has people not only cleaning their shower heads more often, but seeking better alternatives for shower heads and accessories.

At HammerHead Showers®, we are committed to eliminating cheap, plastic parts and using all metal instead. Aside from being far more durable, stainless steel also harbors less bacteria than plastic. And while most companies are using EPDM (a synthetic rubber used mainly in roofing) to line the inside of their shower hoses, we use hygienic silicone for a non-toxic rinse that prevents the accumulation of biofilm. 

all metal shower hose prevents biofilm
all metal hose from The Shower Head Store prevents biofilm buildup

The HammerHead Showers® Difference

We're in the business of exceeding industry standards while keeping prices accessible. You can trust that all of our products are designed to keep your water clean and your showers safe. Check out our full line of shower heads and accessories and experience the HammerHead difference for yourself!  

FAQ

What is lead used for in homes?

Lead can be found in a variety of household items including: painted vintage toys and jewelry (heirloom toys from before the 1978 lead paint ban can be critically hazardous sources of lead); ceramic glazes on bowls, cups, food containers, and antique tubs and sinks; cosmetics; and plumbing pipes and fixtures. 

How can I test my water for lead? 

You can purchase an at-home testing kit for around $20, but the most comprehensive lead testing is done by certified laboratories. Contact your local water utility for a list of laboratories and to learn more about what testing options they offer.

How do you test for lead exposure in children or adults?

A blood test is the most common and accurate way to assess lead levels in both adults and children. Finding out if you have a lead service line is a vital step in narrowing down sources of lead exposure in the home.  

What filters take out lead?

Reverse osmosis and activated carbon filters are the most effective at removing lead in drinking water. High-quality KDF filters are specially designed to withstand higher water temperatures and can remove heavy metals – including lead – and chlorine from shower water.

 

The Shower Head Store is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

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