Lead in public water supply has been a global concern for decades. With lead’s well-known detrimental effect on infants and children, its reduction in drinking water has been a frequent topic of concern in the news and in the mind of the consumer. But what is being done to address these concerns?

In recent decades, industry standards and local regulations have been consistently revised with the goal of reducing lead levels in drinking water, including the flagship NSF/ANSI standards for water treatment devices and endpoint devices.


Lead levels for drinking water treatment devices

A recent change includes updates to pass/fail criteria related to lead in these drinking water treatment unit standards:

  • NSF/ANSI 53: Drinking Water Treatment Units – Health Effects; and
  • NSF/ANSI 58: Reverse Osmosis Drinking Water Treatment Systems.

NSF/ANSI 53 is an industry standard that details health effects criteria for water filtration and treatment devices. The standard has various material and structural integrity requirements, and manufacturers that pursue certification of their products to this standard can add specific contaminant reduction claims (including lead, VOCs, PFAS and more). 

NSF/ANSI 58 is an industry standard specifically for reverse osmosis treatment systems. This standard also has a set of material and structural integrity requirements, with additional requirements for contaminant claims (such as lead).

In response to concerns about the allowable lead levels outlined in these standards, both standards underwent a balloting, voting and approval process to have the threshold for detected lead levels lowered. Standards 53 and 58 now require drinking water treatment units to reduce the lead in drinking water to 5 parts per billion (ppb) or less—a 50% drop from the previous 10 ppb—and a threshold that matches Health Canada’s new maximum allowable concentration level of 5 ppb.

NSF/ANSI 53 and NSF/ANSI 58 and their updates are developed following the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) process designed to ensure openness, balance, consensus and due process for all stakeholders. NSF International’s Drinking Water Treatment Units Joint Committee, which updates the standards, is comprised of stakeholders representing consumers, the water industry and state and federal health and environmental agencies in the U.S. and Canada. 

Read more about this change and its background: www.nsf.org/newsroom/drinking-water-treatment-units-stricter-requirements-lead-reduction-cert.


Lead levels for end point devices

Reducing lead levels in drinking water continues to be an important goal for governments, communities and individuals, especially for our most sensitive populations — infants and children. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that state and local governments take steps to ensure that water supplies in schools do not exceed concentrations of 1 µg/L of lead. In response, a California Assembly bill (AB 2060) was introduced to propose that all faucets and other endpoint devices sold in the state comply with a Q or R statistic of 1 µg for lead-leaching when calculated in accordance with NSF/ANSI/CAN 61, until an equal or more stringent criterion is adopted by that standard.

The Drinking Water Additives Joint Committee that oversees NSF/ANSI/CAN 61 has also been considering ways to reduce lead leaching from endpoint devices. Subcommittee task groups worked throughout 2018 and 2019 to determine ways for consumers to identify lower lead-leaching devices in the marketplace.

This work culminated an update to the standard that will reduce the Q criterion in NSF/ANSI/CAN 61 from the current criteria of 5 µg for endpoint devices and 3 µg for supply stops, flexible plumbing connectors and components to 1 µg and 0.5 µg, respectively. Products will be evaluated to the new criteria on an optional basis for a three-year period, with a corresponding requirement to indicate compliance to the new criteria on consumer-facing product packaging or labeling, as well as in the certification listing. Following this three-year implementation period, the reduced Q criteria will become mandatory for all endpoint devices certified under NSF/ANSI/CAN 61. This phased approach allows products that comply with the lower criteria to be easily identified by consumers as soon as they become available in the marketplace.

These changes to the lead criteria used for endpoint devices are now published in the 2020 edition of NSF/ANSI/CAN 61. 

For more information on the Q value and its status, contact Kathryn Foster at kfoster@nsf.org.