Unscripted: Science and Engineering Research

The Lowdown on Lead

By Stefanie Sidortsova | Published

Last week, the City of Houghton issued a public advisory regarding lead in tap water. Simple precautions can ease your mind.

Every few years, the City of Houghton runs a standard test to keep an eye on lead and copper levels in tap water. In September, the city collected 20 water samples from regularly sampled homes. The test results from three of those samples came back with a lead level that “triggers additional investigative sampling of water quality and requires educational outreach to customers.”

So what's going on? We asked some of our engineers on campus what homeowners and renters can do. 

“This is not a source water issue,” says Audra Morse, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “It’s about the plumbing in your house.”

In other words, the sky isn’t falling—but you might want to consider what’s going on in your own home. Houghton has been around for a while; we have a lot of old homes, some of which have lead pipes. None of the service lines in the City of Houghton are known to be made of lead, but even if good tap water is coming in, chemical reactions can leach lead out of pipes and solder around joints, especially with sitting water.

Both temperature and pH make a difference, advises Morse, so follow the city's instructions to minimize exposure and run cold water for 30 seconds to 2 minutes before using it for drinking, cooking, baby formula prep, brewing beer, filling the dog's water dish, or whatever else you and your loved ones (or roommates) do to ingest water. You're just fine in the shower. And you can't boil it off; go ask a chem eng major why that won't work.  

David Hand, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, also recommends proactive measures, like buying a water quality testing kit to test your water at the point of use. If you go this route, be sure to follow the kit's instructions carefully. Those who aren’t comfortable with the amount of lead in their water can also purchase a water filtration system.

“Every property owner should be a water quality specialist,” Hand says.

Not a property owner but living in one of Houghton's older rentals? Talk to your landlord and find out what they do to promote water quality.

Have questions about the public advisory or water quality issues? Call the City of Houghton at 906-482-1700.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries around the world. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our beautiful campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.