The Drinking Water Quality Regulator for Scotland has established a project to develop a policy for the reduction of exposure to lead in drinking water. The project seeks to identify enablers and strengthen or introduce mechanisms with a range of stakeholders and influencers for the removal of lead service pipes and plumbing. Related project newsletters:
Lead in the environment comes from a variety of sources and may be present in air, food or water.
In Scotland, lead does not occur naturally in significant concentrations in our water supplies. The problem arises when drinking water comes into contact with lead supply pipes, lead tanks, lead solder joints on copper pipes, or inferior quality brass fittings and taps, particularly for longer periods (e.g. overnight/ weekends / holidays periods). This can result in high lead levels in the drinking water supply. All drinking water is required to meet the tighter standard for lead (10µg/l) that came into force in December 2013.
Lead has been shown to have a slight effect on the mental development of children and may also be a factor in behavioural problems. Information on the health effects of exposure to lead can be found on the website:
Water does not contain lead when it leaves the treatment works. For a long time, generally up to 1970, lead was used for some water pipes. Part, or all, of the service pipes connecting the water main in the street to the kitchen tap in older properties may be made of lead, and consequently the water may not always meet the standard at the consumer’s tap.
If you have an older property and are concerned, checking pipework under the kitchen sink will often show whether or not they are lead.
Lead pipes will be dull grey in colour, easily scratched to reveal shiny silver metal and have slight bulges at joints.
There have also been cases where lead in non-approved solder used in plumbing joints has caused failures of the standard at the tap.
Scottish Water provides information and advice about the illegal use of lead solder in a briefing note for developers. This can be viewed on their website by clicking here: Illegal lead use
If you have reason to believe that lead is present in your supply you can contact Scottish Water and request that they take a sample of water from your property and inform you of the results.
Ultimately, the only certain way to reduce exposure to lead is to remove all lead pipework from the property. Pipework between the stop tap and the property is the responsibility of the property owner. Once this is replaced, you can ask Scottish Water to replace any small sections of lead in its part of the service pipe between the water main in the street and the stop valve, which it must do free of charge. In some cases, local authorities may be able to offer a small amount of grant through their scheme of assistance for housing improvement, to assist home-owners with the cost of pipe replacement. Funding available is finite however and availability varies between authorities.
If lead pipes are causing high lead levels in your drinking water, you can take some simple short-term precautions:
Do not drink water that has been standing in the pipes for long periods, for example, overnight, or if no one has been in for several hours. In these circumstances, draw off a washing-up bowlful of water from the kitchen tap to clear the water which has been standing in the pipes. This need not be wasted but can be used to water plants or for something other than drinking or cooking. If the length of lead pipes exceeds 40 metres, more than a bowlful of water will need to be drawn off. You can then use the water from the kitchen tap as usual.