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Garden Hoses’ Safety

Get the Lead Out


Warning: This hose contains chemicals, including lead, known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm. Wash hands after use.” This language or something similar is required by law on every garden hose sold in California. It isn’t on the hose itself, probably, and the print may be very fine, but it is somewhere on the packaging.

How much lead, and how dangerous is it? All health professionals agree that even small amounts of lead can lead to problems if repeatedly ingested over time. Once it is in the human system, it takes a lot of doing to get it out. Most people who’ve investigated the lead content in water from garden hoses agree that lead does leach out, so you probably shouldn’t drink out of one, you surely shouldn’t let your children drink out of a hose, and you probably shouldn’t fill your pet water bowls from the hose either. Oh, yeah, don’t fill your kids’ blow-up wading pool with it either, and you might want to think twice about letting them play in the sprinkler attached to the hose.

Even watering your garden with a hose containing lead can lead to eventual exposure. Most researchers agree that your vegetables will be safe to eat. Lead will continue to accumulate on and in your soil, however. Digging and planting may allow contact at a later time.

Most hoses are made of either polyvinyl chloride (PVC), rubber, or a combination. PVC hoses last longer and are inexpensive and lightweight, a boon when you have to lug a 75-footer around the garden. Rubber hoses are more durable, but heavier. Depending on how many layers of material used in the manufacture, hoses are more or less flexible and prone to kinking. But why is there lead in hoses? According to Consumer Reports, lead is used as a stabilizer in PVC (makes you wonder what else out there has lead-laced PVC in it).

One consumer test to see just how much lead was in hoses tested 16 hoses representing popular brands from national chains. Four were labeled safe for drinking, six had warning labels, and six had no labels either way. After leaving water in the hoses for 20 hours, they measured concentrations less than the acceptable levels set for drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for all of those labeled as safe. Water taken from all the rest had levels 10 to 100 times that allowed.

That sounds like rubber hoses may be safer to use. They will be slightly more expensive and are more prone to damage from UV radiation in sunlight. Hose fittings may also contribute to lead poisoning. Many are made of brass that may also contain lead. Plastic or nickel-plated fittings are safer.

Even safer hoses, though, are clearly marked “For Drinking Water.” They are lined with plastic or made from medical-grade vinyl and can be found at recreational vehicle or boat and marine supply houses. They are easy to spot as they are often white with a blue stripe down their length; there are some, however, marketed for RVs, that are beige but still have the tell-tale blue stripe. Hoses designed for drinking water may also have treatments to make them bacteria, mold, and mildew free.

A few healthy hose tips should be followed when using any hose: Always let the water run long enough to flush out the hose before adding water to the pet bowl or kiddy pool. Don’t allow water to stand in the hose after using it. This may mean removing the spray nozzle, sprinkler, or other gardening device from the open end and draining remaining water as you coil the hose back up. Especially, don’t allow a hose full of water to sit in the sun after you’ve turned it off; the heat buildup can damage the integrity of the lining and leach chemicals. If you need to repair a damaged hose or leaking coupler, use plastic clamp-style fittings. (See box for tips on making that chore a snap.)

Some safe hoses include Gardener’s Supply (33-469), Teknor Neverkink RV and Marine Hose, Swan Marine/Camper, and Better Homes and Gardens’ Kinkfree hoses. Whatever brand you buy, read the entire label (even the back). There are plenty of suppliers on the Internet if you can’t find one nearby. Let your local hardware store or nursery know how important this is and perhaps we can make a change so that all garden hoses are safe.

Mending a Hose or Replacing the Coupling

• Cut off the damaged portion, either the end with the damaged coupler or the segment of hose that contains the leak. Be sure to use a sharp knife or set of cutters to leave a clean edge that is perpendicular to the length of the hose.

• Take the damaged portion with you to the hardware store to be sure you purchase the correct clamp-style coupler, male or female, or repair fitting of the correct diameter.

• Remove the screws of the clamp portions and keep handy.

• Dip the cut end of the hose in very hot water (boiling water poured into a heat-safe bowl works well) for 30 seconds to soften it up.

• Push hose firmly over the barbed end of the coupler until the cut end is flush with the collar (there will be two barbed ends on the leak repair coupler).

• Replace the clamps, also flush with the collar, and replace the screws. Alternate tightening each screw to avoid pinching the hose unevenly and creating a(nother) leak.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to vahayes@lotusland.org.

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