Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Curing the Devon Colic

Thursday July 30, 2009 - 11:20:00 AM
Though not used for drinking, this lead closet bend (the waste line below the toilet) shows us that lead is still part of many plumbing systems in our homes.
Matt Cantor
Though not used for drinking, this lead closet bend (the waste line below the toilet) shows us that lead is still part of many plumbing systems in our homes.

The people of 17th century Devon made and enjoyed a wonderful apple cyder, and being a modern people (aren’t we always modern people?) they used a new-fangled mechanical press to make their cyder. The press was cleaned using lead shot and, when combined with the acid of the apples, left a residue that made more than a few folks sick. The Devon Colic was identified and explained by one Dr. George Baker in the mid-18th century and by the early 19th century, folks finally accepted the science and got the lead out. 

Lead poisoning is as old as lead’s discovery and use, and its ill effects were noticed as early as 200 BC in Rome (though I would guess that the moms of Asia Minor called this one first). First mined in Anatolia (ancient Turkey) some 8,500 years ago, lead was easy to work and was probably our first real exploration into metalwork. Acetate of Lead was a popular sweetener in Roman times (and we worry about our artificial sweeteners), even when its toxicity was suspected. I suppose we should be able to relate, living in a world where many of our current activities are the subject of great controversy (are you smoking as you read this?). 

Lead was used by Roman engineers to form pipe (they were sort of squarish, unlike our familiar round ones) and the Roman baths in Bath, England (called Aquae Sulis after the odd-winged God, Sulis, who inhabited the place) still have them operating and on display. In fact, our word plumbing comes directly from the word for lead, Plumbum (which is what you get when you sit in a bunch of plums, right?). 

It’s apocrypha that our cities still use lead pipes, as these were removed in response to increased awareness and concern for the ill effects of lead over the past 130 years or so. That said, we were using lead in solder for copper piping when I started out as a builder and it was only recently (about 1988) that, by mandate, lead solders were replaced with alternative “lead-free” ones.  

Despite the presence of some minor lead in these older copper systems, there isn’t much lead that comes off, except when significant amount of oxygen or acidity in water is present. Our water supply is fairly well-regulated and this remains a relatively small problem (as best as we can gauge at this point).  

But one lead component has remained all this while. This is the lowly faucet. Faucets, it turns out, still contain some lead and do shed this into our drinking glass. It’s a function of manufacturing and of leak prevention that we use this in faucets. Lead is pretty good at preventing pinholes in rough brass and copper metals and also provides a plasticizing or lubricating effect in the milling of these metals, especially brass, and brass has been the favorite of faucet manufacturers for a very long time as it is corrosion resistant and easy to work. 

Brass is largely copper and zinc, but even today, most brass is about 8 percent lead. Removal of the brass, while preserving good function has taken some innovation but it’s finally happening. 

About two years ago, in the September of 2006, California passed legislation to remove all but one quarter of 1 percent of the lead in all faucets from which we draw water to cook with or drink. This gave the manufacturers more than three years to comply. So this coming January, you should no longer be able to buy any kitchen or bathroom faucet that will not meet the current standard. This isn’t the first lead removal standard we’ve faced in the United States or the state, just the latest. 

I’ve been perusing websites that discuss California Assembly Bill 1953 (which mandates the lead reduction in faucets) and most are from faucet makers that start out with something like, “We’ve always led the way in innovation” and, “Part of our commitment to excellence is our guarantee that each product will move you to tears, send your children to college and help you finish that movie script you’ve been putting off all these years.” This makes me wonder if the new faucets might have problems. Well, frankly, I don’t know. I know that lead was really good for paints and that they’re just not quite as good as they used to be (not that I want to go back to lead paint) and asbestos fibers made for really good roof patching compounds (again, not wishing).  

So it might take us a little while to get this right, but I do think the industry should be supported in this laudable effort and I believe it’s worth investing in a new faucet at the place you get most of your drinking water from (if it’s fairly old). Of course, you don’t have to do this to meet AB 1953. The legislation is only designed to take the old stock off the shelf so that all future work will be a bit safer. 

Lead is a serious matter, especially for children up to the age of 6. All small children living in older homes should be tested. Ask your doctor. Lead is extremely toxic and inhibits development of the brain and other organs and can result in behavioral abnormalities and learning disabilities. Lead can also sicken adults, attacking kidney function or raising blood pressure. The current thinking is that there are no safe lead levels and that even minute levels of lead can produce illness. 

The EPA has said that they believe roughly 10-20 percent of our lead exposure can come from drinking water. While not earthshaking, this is certainly worthy of some attention. They have also said that roughly half of an infant’s exposure to lead can come from water if they consume primarily mixed formula (one more reason to breast-feed). If this is the case, it clearly becomes extremely important to consider changing faucets, have one’s piping tested for lead solders and, most of all, to use that simple practice of letting the water run a short while before filling the drinking glass (or baby bottle), especially first thing in the morning or anytime the faucet has not been run for a while. Fill up your watering can with the first gallon—the plants won’t mind. 

Strong evidence favors lead paint as being our primary source of lead exposure, so water’s probably not our chief worry as regards lead. Nevertheless, it can’t hurt for all of us to clean up our act just a bit more. To eschew the Devon Colic, the morbi metallici or Saturn (as were the diagnoses once pronounced) and turn in your 8 percent faucets as we embrace the new decade. 

Thanks to my great friend Charlie, raconteur/handyman par excellence for tipping me off to the coming spoilage date on faucets and for many other plumb good times.