According to Public Health England, lead is used in many products, such as cables, storage batteries, circuit boards, electronic equipment and optical technology, and as a way of shielding systems from the harmful effects of X-rays. However, not all lead products are beneficial, and products that once commonly included lead had to be phased out because of the risk to human health, for example, petrol, paints, food cans and water pipes.
Until 1970, most of our water systems used lead piping in domestic and commercial buildings. Once the health risks were uncovered the law was changed; which is why, if your business premises were built post-1970, lead piping is not something you need to worry about. Lead pipes are generally only replaced on an ad hoc basis, so if your company occupies older premises, there is a chance your building may still have lead water pipes. Even if the visible piping is copper, there is still a possibility that lead solder has been used to connect the pipes, meaning there’s still a risk that lead can leach into the water.
It’s simple to check if there is lead piping in your building. The lead pipes will be a metallic grey which is easily distinguishable from copper piping or polyethylene. If your pipes have been painted over, scratch off a small section of the paint until you can see the colour underneath.
If the pipes and solder on your premises are not lead, but you still have concerns about the water pipes that are feeding your building’s water system, contact your water company and ask them to check.
For peace of mind, you can conduct your own tests on the lead content of your water using water testing kits; they are readily available online.
Ingesting high levels of lead, or low levels of lead over a long period of time, can lead to physical health problems, such as headaches, stomach upset, anaemia and low blood pressure, as well as damage to the nervous system, brain and kidneys. In developmental terms, it can lead to mood changes, poor attention span, damage to the brain, and is particularly harmful to pregnant women and children.
The DWI report is very clear about the health and monetary benefits of replacing all lead piping in our drinking water systems. “The two most significant benefit components from reduced lead exposure from drinking water, in monetary terms, are assessed to (a) avoided reduction in lifetime earnings from IQ detriment, and (b) avoided CKD (Chronic Kidney Disease) morbidity and mortality.”
Unfortunately, there is still enough lead piping in England and Wales to warrant concern. In 2021, the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) published a report on Long-term Strategies to Reduce Lead Exposure from Drinking Water. The report recommends that the government halve the current lead water quality standard from 10 µg/l to 5 µg/l in line with the EU Drinking Water Directive. They said: “Whilst compliance with the current 10 µg/L standard for lead is very high, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) agree that there is no lower threshold for adverse effects of lead on human health. Adverse health effects from ingestion of drinking water which contains even very small amounts of lead, cannot be ruled out.”
The DWI’s recommendations included a target of no detectable lead by between 2055 and 2070. To achieve this, water companies in England and Wales would be required to replace all lead service pipes.
Pipes can fail at any time, but the following factors increase stress on pipes and joints, making leaks more likely:
Water leaks are usually unexpected, often invisible, and can be very costly. If you suspect you have a leak, read our Leak Assistance Guide.
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