Lead used to be one of the most commonly used materials in construction projects in the United Kingdom. You’d find lead in everything from petrol to paint to electrics to plumbing – which means that many household water supplies came via lead pipes.
Over time, research began to suggest that exposure to lead could prove hazardous to human health. As a result, the government prohibited the use of lead in many products with the ban encompassing water supply pipes in 1970.
The World Health Organisation advises that exposure to lead is kept to a minimum. Infants and children are particularly at risk from lead as it can have an adverse effect on mental development and be a factor in behavioural problems.
Here’s how to find out whether your property’s water is supplied via lead pipes – and what to do if it is.
How do I know if my water supply uses lead pipes?
If you home was built after 1970, then it is unlikely that any of your water supply pipes are made from lead. The same is true if your property has undergone any modernisation in the past 50 years; if your pipework has been replaced in that time then any lead fittings will have been switched for a safer material.
There are a couple of simple tests which you can undertake to check whether your home is supplied by lead water pipes. Try and locate the pipe which leads to your kitchen tap, often found inside or behind your kitchen cupboards, under the stairs or in a garage or cellar.
If this pipe is lead, then it will appear a dull grey in colour. It will be soft to touch and when you scrape it, a shiny, silver-coloured metal will be revealed underneath.
Modern pipes will instead be made from copper (bright, hard and brown), iron – (dark and possibly rusty) or plastic (typically blue but in older properties, it may be grey or black).
You can also check your exterior supply pipe. This connects with the mains, bringing water from the public supply line and into your property. Examine the pipe which leads from your property’s stop valve and into your house to establish whether it is made from lead.
What should I do if I think my water supply pipes are made from lead?
Should you suspect that your water is supplied through lead pipes, then you can request that your water company carry out a free test of the water being dispensed from the kitchen tap.
They will take daily samples at random before supplying you with a report which will detail how much lead – if any – is in your supply line. The safe standard is considered 10 micrograms per litre or one part in 100 million.
If lead is confirmed as being present and you do not own the property, then you should contact environmental health about the issue.
Homeowners who have discovered lead in their water supply pipes face a couple of options, depending on the severity of the problem.
How can I minimise my exposure to lead found in water?
The only way to truly reduce the risk of exposure to lead is to have any lead water pipes on your property replaced. That may not be a feasible course of action immediately, in which case there are several steps you can take to reduce the amount of lead you come into contact with through water.
Running the cold water tap to fill up your kitchen sink every morning will flush out any stagnant water that has been sat in the pipework overnight. Flushing the toilet will have some the effect.
If you have young children or a pregnant adult living in the property, then switching from tap water to bottled water is the safest method of temporarily avoiding lead.
You should also be careful not to disturb lead pipes on your property. Knocking them can increase the lead content of the water within.
Who is responsible for replacing lead pipes?
As is the case with all pipework, anything which runs underneath a property is the responsibility of the homeowner. This includes the underground supply line which connects with the water main.
Any pipes which are beyond your property’s stop tap are generally the responsibility of the local water company.
If the problem falls under your remit, then you will need to find a contractor to carry out the replacement of your lead pipes and fund the work yourself. Grants are available for the replacement of lead pipes for lower income homes. If you think you may qualify, then speak to your local council or water company.
You should contact your water company before carrying out any work. Legally, they will be required to replace their own communication line providing that you request they do so in writing, are willing to replace the pipes which are your responsibility and tests have shown that lead is present above the safe standard.