Preventing leaching from lead water pipes with electrochemistry: an exploratory study
Toxic levels of lead leaching from ageing water distribution infrastructure affect over 5000 public drinking water systems in the US. Pipe replacement, the most effective solution to this problem, is prohibitively expensive. Additionally, chemical conditioning of drinking water using orthophosphates, although cost-effective, does not quickly stop lead leaching once it has started. We propose a novel approach to stop lead leaching: to rapidly form an insoluble scale within lead pipes using an external power supply. We report on the feasibility of this approach by first anodizing lead coupons and lead pipes reclaimed from a local water distribution using a phosphate electrolyte and different potentials, pH values, and phosphate concentrations. We subsequently exposed these anodized lead coupons and pipes to synthetic tap water to evaluate their lead leaching rates. We found that polarizing lead coupons in the presence of a 0.05 M phosphate solution decreased lead leaching by up to a 100-fold, relative to leaching from polished bare lead. Similarly, polarizing the reclaimed lead pipes (with a preexisting scale) decreased lead leaching from an average of 36 ppb to 7 ppb. These results were observed when applying potentials that favor Pb(IV) formation, which resulted in the buildup of PbO2 and Pb5(PO4)3OH in both lead coupons and pipes. Our findings indicate that this novel technology has the potential to rapidly decrease equilibrium lead levels in tap water below the EPA action limit of 15 ppb, and thus deserves further exploration.