Scotland’s drinking water is ranked one of the best in the world. Our fresh, clear drinking water is the upside to living in a country with heavy rainfall. According to Scottish Water, water quality in Scotland is at an all-time high with 99.91% of tests taken at the kitchen tap complying with strict regulatory standards.
Yet water companies are trying to alert homeowners to the fact that lead pipes in could be exposing them to dangerous levels of lead that lead to serious health effects.
Scotland doesn’t have a high concentration of naturally occurring lead in water supplies.
Lead enters drinking water via water meeting lead service lines, pipes, lead tanks, solder joints on copper pipes or chrome-plated brass faucets.
In recent years local authorities have tried to raise awareness of lead poisoning from drinking water to reduce Scots’ lead consumption.
This is particularly important for those with a private water supply whose water isn’t regularly tested by Scottish Water.
How does lead enter drinking water?
Drinking water becomes contaminated from contact with lead pipework.
If the lead pipework is damaged or corroded, then there’s a small chance of developing lead poisoning from your drinking water.
Lead supply pipes, lead solder joints and brass fitting are all things to be concerned about.
Is it safe to drink water from lead pipes?
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.
If the concentration is higher than 10 micrograms per litre then there is a real risk of lead poisoning.
Babies and children are at particular risk as lead in drinking water can cause developmental problems.
Lead poisoning facts
Small amounts of lead consumed over time can build up in the body and cause serious health risks.
What causes lead poisoning?
In the past exposure to lead was a lot higher than it is today. Lead was used in paint, food containers and petrol, meaning people encountered lead every day.
Measures have since been taken to reduce lead consumption.
The risk of lead poisoning today is small thanks to modern advancements and education around the harmful effects of lead. However, a significant risk still present today is old pipes contaminating drinking tap water.
If your property was built prior to 1970 you might be dealing with lead pipes, a lead water tank or lead pipe fittings on your pipework.
If the pipes are corroded then there’s a chance of contracting lead poisoning via your drinking water.
Who is at risk?
Anyone can get lead poisoning, but unborn babies and young children are particularly at risk.
Children absorb lead in higher concentrations than adults and babies can ingest lead via breast milk and baby formula.
Symptoms in young children can include:
- irritability and fatigue
- loss of appetite and weight loss
- abdominal pain
- hearing loss
- developmental delay and learning difficulties
Lead is a toxic metal and therefore can pose a health risk to adults too if they regularly drink from lead contaminated water.
Symptoms in adults can include:
- high blood pressure
- abdominal pain
- joint and muscle pain
- pain, numbness or tingling of the extremities
- miscarriage or premature birth in pregnant women
- memory loss
Identifying lead contamination requires a blood test.
If your property has a lead supply pipe or lead-lined tanks and you or your children are experiencing any of these symptoms, contact your GP immediately.
For more information on the health effects associated with high lead levels in water, visit the NHS Inform website.
How can I prevent lead poisoning?
To prevent lead contamination, you need to find out if your property has lead plumbing.
Most modern houses are fitted with plastic pipes. However, if you live in a period property then there’s a chance that the pipe leading from your house to the water main is made of lead.
If you drink from a private supply, check that your water tank isn’t lined with lead or that your plumbing fittings haven’t been soldered with lead.
Things to look for:
- unpainted lead pipes are dull grey and have rounded swollen joints where they join another service pipe
- lead pipes are soft and if gently scraped you will see the shiny, silver-coloured metal appear underneath
- tapping a lead pipe with a metal object will produce a dull thud rather than the clear ringing sound produced by copper or iron pipes
If you’re worried about the supply pipe or plumbing materials in your home, contact Scottish Water’s helpline on 0800 0778778.
They’ll arrange for an engineer to visit your property and sample your water for free. Those on a private supply will be charged a fee. You can contact a private company to test your water instead of Scottish Water.
You can also arrange for your local water authority to collect a sample.
You can’t see or smell lead in drinking water, therefore it’s vital you have your water tested to protect human health.
If your private water supply contains an unacceptably high concentration of lead, then your local authority will recommend you take action. In the meantime, do not drink from the tap water until lead service pipes have been replaced.
Check The Drinking Water Quality Regulator for Scotland website for more information about lead in drinking water, including private water supplies.
Local council Environmental Health Officers have an awareness of private water supplies in their areas. You can find contact details for your local council on the CoSLA website. Citizens Advice Scotland can advise tenants regarding rented properties on private water supply.
Are lead water pipes illegal in the UK?
Lead plumbing has been banned in the UK for over 25 years.
Houses built before the 1970s are more likely to have lead pipes that need replacing.
However, new homes can still be affected if lead has been used to solder pipes. This method is popular with DIY-ers looking to save money and unqualified plumbers.
Do I need to replace my lead water pipe?
It’s not a legal requirement to replace your lead pipes.
However, over time small amounts of lead leaking into your drinking water can cause lead poisoning.
We recommend that every homeowner checks their drinking water pipes. If you find that you’ve got lead pipes, or lead solder has been used for jointing, it’s best to get them replaced with safe, modern pipes.
Who is responsible for replacing lead water pipes?
Ultimately, the responsibility for replacing lead pipes lies with the homeowner. If you use a private supply we recommend contacting a private water company to test your water.
Homeowners using mains supply pipes should contact Scottish Water.
How do you remove lead pipes?
To determine if you have lead pipes that need removed, find where the mains water pipe enters your property. Under the kitchen sink, the downstairs loo or under the stairs are possible entry points.
Next, scrape the pipe gently with a coin. Shiny, silvery metal underneath indicates a lead pipe.
It’s advisable to complete the above step while wearing a face mask because lead dust can be harmful if inhaled.
How much does it cost to remove and replace lead pipes?
The average cost to replace lead pipes is £600.
The cost will depend on the size of your property and how many pipes need replacing.
Before carrying out replacement pipework remember to check that you’re compliant with the Scottish Water Byelaws 2014.
It’s important to ensure that the replacement water supply pipe runs to the existing stop valve.
Lead pipe replacement grants Scotland
The Scottish Government offers private water supply grants of up to £800.
Users and owners of private water supplies can use the grant to ensure their drinking water meets modern standards. This includes replacing lead pipes to mitigate health risks.
The grants can also contribute to the one-off cost of installing treatment to ensure your private supply is lead free.
The grant won’t help towards on-going maintenance of your private supply.
If a grant would help you cover costs, it’s important to apply before starting replacement work otherwise your application won’t be valid. For further information on how to apply visit the Scottish Government website.