Lead in Water

Lead in drinking water – what you need to know

Drinking water supplied in lead pipes can be bad for your health, so it’s important to know how to identify lead pipes in your property. Always wash your hands thoroughly after doing the 'scratch test' featured in the advice film below. If in doubt contact your local water supplier for advice and always use a WaterSafe plumber to safely replace your lead pipes with copper or plastic ones.

Why should I check for lead in my water?

Lead is a dangerous metal which can cause serious poisoning if it builds up in the body. Babies and young children are most at risk as their development can be affected.

If the water supply to a home or business passes through lead pipes, or someone has used illegal lead solder to join pipes, the lead can dissolve into the drinking water.

The plumbing in your property is the responsibility of the homeowner, so it’s up to you to safeguard your health by replacing lead pipes with ones made of copper or plastic.

How do I know if there are lead pipes in my home?

If your home was built before 1970 it may have lead pipes. If it was built after 1970 it is unlikely to have lead pipes, as for drinking water supplies the installation of new lead pipes and the use of lead solder to join pipes has been banned in the UK for more than 25 years.

Even in properties with no lead pipework there may be other sources of lead in drinking water, such as brass fittings or improperly used lead-based solders.

Each property is different. However, start by checking the incoming pipework behind your kitchen cupboards or under the stairs – this is also where you would normally find your stoptap. Find the pipe leading to the kitchen tap. Unpainted lead pipes are dull grey in colour. They are also soft. If you scrape the surface gently with a coin, you will see shiny, silver-coloured metal beneath if the pipe is made of lead.

Always wash your hands thoroughly after doing this 'scratch test', which is featured in this video

If in doubt, ask a WaterSafe approved plumber or your local water company for advice. You can also ask your water company to test the water at your kitchen tap.

Why is it important to use lead-free solder to joint copper pipes?

For drinking water supplies the installation of new lead pipes and the use of lead solder to join pipes has been banned in the UK for more than 25 years. However, it is still possible to buy lead solder and cases of high lead in drinking water are still being recorded following its use by DIY enthusiasts or unqualified plumbers who are unaware of the danger.

Using lead-free solder to joint copper pipes which are used for drinking, cooking and washing isn’t just a legal requirement, it safeguards your drinking water.

Under the Water Fittings Regulations and Byelaws, the use of lead solder for jointing copper pipes is prohibited in plumbing systems which supply water for drinking, cooking or bathing. Solder containing lead can only be used on water installations not used for drinking, such as closed circuit central heating systems.

Your water supplier will be able to test the levels of lead in your water if you’re concerned. Water suppliers recommend households and businesses use WaterSafe to find approved plumbing businesses whose plumbers have undergone specific training in the Water Fitting Regulations and Byelaws.

What can I do to reduce lead in my water?

If your home has lead pipes there are short-term measures you can take to reduce the amount of lead in your water. Run the tap to remove water that has been standing in the pipes for long periods, for example, overnight, or if no one has run the taps for several hours. Draw off a washing-up bowlful of water from the kitchen tap once or twice to clear the water which has been standing. This doesn’t need to be wasted, but can be used to water plants or the garden.

In the long term, replacing the pipes is the best solution and you can discuss this with your water company as they may be able to co-ordinate this with replacing their section of the pipe.

One thing to remember - your existing lead supply pipe may have been used for electrical earthing, even though this has not been allowed for new installations since 1966. So, if you alter or replace your lead pipework you may also need to get advice from your electricity supply company or an approved electrical contractor.

Who is responsible for replacing the lead pipes in my property?

The water supply regulations* set strict lead standards for customers’ drinking water supplies. The maximum concentration allowed is 10 micrograms per litre, the same as one part in 100 million.

Many water suppliers already have programmes in place to replace any lead pipes they find on their own network.

However, homeowners and businesses are responsible for all pipes on their property – including internal pipes and the underground supply pipe which connects your home or business to the public water main.

If you’re replacing pipes within your boundary, make sure you contact your local water company, as they may be able to also replace the pipes beyond your house and garden.

WaterSafe and water companies advise replacing all lead pipes with new copper or plastic pipes which have been approved for use with drinking water. A WaterSafe approved plumber is qualified to safely replace lead pipes in line with the  Water Fittings Regulations and Byelaws which protect public drinking water in the UK.

*The Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 2010 in Wales, The Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 2016 in England, The Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2007 and The Public Water Supplies (Scotland) Regulations 2014.

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