By Russ and Tiña De Maris
On August 30, all Detroit public schools shut off drinking water due to elevated levels of copper and/or lead. Prior to that, the Flint, Michigan, water crisis spotlighted the dangers of lead in drinking water. Even though the city’s water supply has now been declared safe, some residents may still be stuck getting their drinking water from plastic bottles until the next decade, when it’s predicted that lead pipes will all have been removed.
Lest you should think, “There but for the grace of God, go I,” hold up. No, your RV probably doesn’t come equipped with lead pipes. But, sad to say, lead pipes aren’t the only source of lead in water: Water standing in brass fittings can leach lead as well. Is it a concern?
Children and pregnant women are at the most risk for health issues related to lead. A “dose” of lead that would create few or no problems for an adult can be a major issue for a child. Nervous system damage, learning disabilities, reduced IQ, behavioral disorders, hearing impairments, short stature, and damage to blood cell function are high on the list of lead-created health problems. A mother-to-be who takes in lead through drinking water can pass the metal along to her unborn child with problems like reduced fetal growth, or even premature birth.
But even adults can suffer nasty consequences from taking in too much lead. Blood pressure can go up, kidney function can go down, and reproductive issues can arise. These are just the most significant heath issues associated with lead intake.
But how are we, as RVers, endangered by lead? As mentioned, brass plumbing fittings can leach lead into the water they contain. Do you have brass in your RV? It’s quite possible. While a few manufacturers produce faucets built completely from plastic, or use copper tubing to deliver the water through a plastic (or chrome-plated) fixture, brass is a commonly used material in sink faucets and shower fittings. Most faucets purchased prior to 1997 were constructed of brass or chrome-plated brass containing up to 8 percent lead. Water sitting overnight – or several hours – in these tends to leach lead from the brass faucet interior, which may produce relatively high lead levels in the first draw of drinking water. Newer regulations demand that the leach amount of lead from a faucet may not exceed more than 11 ppb (parts per billion). That could be much less leachate, but some are nonetheless concerned about getting all lead out. Mind you, the law allows manufacturers to use the term “lead free” when discussing their faucets, but still put out up to 11 ppb lead.
Other brass plumbing fixtures that you might not think about can also leach lead. A few weeks ago, we published a tip suggesting RVers could install an elbow outside their RV, where their water hose connects to the city water inlet fitting, reducing potential damage or flow issues to the hose. One of our readers quickly pointed out that the elbow we showed in an accompanying photo was brass. Sad to say, at this point we can’t find a supplier of RV water inlet elbows that builds them out of anything but brass.
But there are other fixtures lurking. Do you use a water pressure regulator on your RV? The adjustable style appear to all be made of brass. Regulators that don’t allow for pressure adjustment are either brass or plastic. But go out a little farther. When you hook your hose up to the city water source at your home or RV site, what do you hook to? Most likely the hose bib you’ll attach to is brass – very few are plastic.
It’s nearly impossible to get water to your RV, or to your drinking glass, without encountering brass along the way. What’s to be done to protect ourselves then? It’s possible to reduce the amount of leached lead, but for RVers it tends to be a bit more complicated. Here’s the advice commonly dispensed by public health officials. “Let It Run. Flush taps before using water from them for drinking or cooking,” says a handout from the Minnesota Department of Public Health. “Water that stands idle in pipes for long periods of time – such as overnight or during the day when people are gone to work and school – is more likely to absorb materials from the plumbing system. The best way to rid the pipes of water that may contain lead is to let the cold-water faucet run until you feel that the water is as cold as it will get. The amount of time this takes will depend on your home and how its plumbing is arranged – but you should always run the water for at least 60 seconds.”
The idea is, get the water that might contain lead out of the pipes and down the drain. If you’re boondocking, however, every second of running water down the drain means you’re more quickly filling up your holding tank and emptying your fresh water tank. Of course, you might not have to run the water a full minute – the idea is to get the “contaminated” water out. If you’re dealing with a brass faucet at the galley sink, a few seconds of run-time might be all that’s required. In an RV park, you’re trying to get the lead flushed out from a city-water connection at the far end of your hose and, yes, that will take longer. Of course, at this point you’ll likely have a place to easily dump your holding tank, so not so much a problem.
You could also “run the tap” for the required amount of time, but instead of running the water down the drain, catch it in a container and put it to some other use. No, not cooking, tooth brushing, or giving to pets, but lead in drinking water will not harm plants. Got house plants? Or maybe those cute plants outside your door would enjoy a drink.
Filling up the fresh water holding tank? It’s not a bad idea to let the water run to “clear the hose” of any hose leachates, and, at the same time, eliminating any lead that may have been brewing in a brass hose bib. Here again, no harm to your holding tank, just the benefits of knowing you’ve done what you could. If you’re particularly concerned about brass fittings inside your rig, you can always change them out. And while you’re looking around, make sure your RV water hose doesn’t have brass fittings. There’s no standard for how much lead may leach out of these or from hose bibs.
If you’re concerned about lead in your water, taking a few precautions can reduce your danger, and increase your peace of mind.