Lead pipes and tanks have, historically, been used to provide a piped water supply into houses and other premises. In times past, it was an easy to use material and it ensured that the supply was protected against bacterial contamination. It is no longer installed and nowadays copper and modern plastic materials are used to secure and ensure a wholesome water supply is delivered.
Whilst environmental sources of lead affects us all to some degree or other, lead pipes and tanks continue to remain in place in the drinking water supply route in some premises making it a particular concern. Lead is toxic and where it does exist, the people most at risk are children, babies and pregnant women as it impairs development of the child. The Drinking Water Quality Regulator for Scotland (DWQR) is working with a range of influencers, stakeholders and consumer groups, to address the importance of removing lead service pipes and plumbing fittings wherever they are found.
It is clear for many consumers that lead is not an issue and there are many who believe it was a problem resolved many years ago. It is generally taken that premises built before 1970 are most likely to have had their water supply originally delivered through lead pipes. The good thing is that over time, a proportion have had those pipes replaced. For some property owners however, the issue has not gone away and it is something they need to think about.
Scottish Water provides the public water supply in Scotland and it has responsibility for the part of the service pipe and connection within the street - the Communication pipe. Where they encounter lead pipes within their ownership, they automatically replace those with modern materials.
Supply pipes and any pipes internal to the property - the domestic distribution system, are the responsibility of the property owners (or by the number of owners for the common elements of a shared supply). The DWQR urges those responsible for properties to remove all lead pipes and fittings from the drinking water supply route to fully address the health issues.
General questions on lead and lead pipes:
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 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 NHS Inform 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 it is 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.
What can I do if I am unable to replace my lead pipes immediately but I am still concerned about lead?
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.