Lead in Drinking Water: A Health Hazard Throughout History

Published on 13/10/2022 Last updated on 19/02/2024

We’ve known lead can damage health from the moment we started using it. Despite this, today lead is still a problem for many households in the Netherlands. How could it come to this, and what can you do about it?

Laszlo has to collect water for himself and his family at a water tap every morning because the water from the tap in his home is not healthy. Armed with a big bag of plastic bottles, he strolls a few hundred yards each day to a public tap in the street. His family needs this water for drinking, cooking, and making tea. “Sometimes it’s nice, but sometimes when it’s evening and it’s raining, it’s not so nice,” he says, a little sadly.

You might be tempted to think Laszlo lives in a remote African village, but you’d be wrong. The above is an excerpt from a news report that appeared on NOS in 2020. Laszlo lives in Amsterdam North, in a house built before 1960. These houses sometimes contain lead water pipes which release small amounts of lead into the water. And this is a problem. Lead is harmful, particularly to (unborn) babies and children under seven, but also to adults.


The lead used to transport water is literally as old as ancient Rome. Because lead is flexible and malleable while also being sturdy, the ancient Romans used it for their water pipes, sewage systems and aqueducts. They called it “plumbum.” The words “plumber” in English, and “plombier” in French are derived from this. But even as early as the first century BC, there were warnings about lead. The architect Vitruvius spoke of lead poisoning: lead was “bad” and “detrimental to the body.” Despite this, lead continued to be used for water infrastructure.

In 1908, the Dutch government was officially warned about the dangers of lead for the first time. The Health Council advised, amongst other things, to flush lead pipes before use. Over time, lead began to disappear from society. Lead-based paint was banned in the 1930s. Thirty years later, the laying of new lead pipes was prohibited, and at the turn of the century leaded petrol was also banned. These measures were supposed to reduce our exposure to lead. But did they?

Lead Exposure – Still a Problem

Despite policies banning lead and lead products, we ingest lead from the air and the soil. According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), food is the main source of lead. In addition to tap water (6.1%), bread (8.5%), tea (6.2%), potatoes and potato products (4.9%), fermented milk products (4.2%) and beer (4.1%) also contribute to lead exposure. And for those who live in a home with old lead water pipes, the exposure is even higher. An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 homes in the Netherlands still have lead water pipes. Products containing very low levels of lead are safe as long as they are not over-consumed. But excessive exposure can have a negative impact on health.

According to research by the University of Florida, lead is toxic to the body and brain. Chronic exposure can cause anaemia, kidney problems, vitamin D deficiency, impaired metabolism and neurotoxicity. It has been linked to reproductive health issues such as reduced sperm quality and an increased risk of miscarriage. Elevated lead concentrations are associated with low birth weight, delayed postnatal growth, as well as behavioural problems like hyperactivity. What’s more, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified lead as a “probable human carcinogen.”

Lead Poisoning

Chronic exposure to lead is linked to a high risk of acute lead poisoning, resulting in intestinal, stomach and kidney damage. But even low exposure is harmful, especially for children. Lead accumulates in children’s brains, where it inhibits the creation of new connections between nerve cells. This affects the hippocampus, which plays a role in memory and learning. Children are at higher risk of lead exposure because they drink a lot in proportion to their body weight and their intestines absorb lead more easily.

According to North Holland water company PWN, the amount of lead in tap water depends on several factors: what the water pipes are made of, the extent to which the water can dissolve lead, and the speed at which the water flows through the pipes. Other factors include how long the water stays in the pipes, as well as the length of the pipes. The amount of lead can therefore differ per home, building or even tap.

Adjusted Standards

According to recent European data, the current daily dietary lead exposure in adults is estimated to be between 0.4-1.2 μg (microgram) per kilogram of body weight. According to recent Dutch data, the daily dietary lead burden in children is estimated at 1 μg per kilogram of body weight. At these levels, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) considers the risk of adverse effects in adults to be low to negligible. “But lead turns out to be more harmful than previously thought,” says Fred Woudenberg, head of living environment at GGD Amsterdam in an interview with De Groene Amsterdammer.

This is reflected in the standards that have changed over the years. In 1978, scientists Zielhuis and Wibowo still considered 400 micrograms of lead per litre harmless. From 1983, the European Drinking Water Directive specified that tap water in the Netherlands was not allowed to contain more than 50 micrograms of lead per litre. In 1997, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended that this standard be significantly tightened. As a result, the current standard is 10 micrograms of lead per litre. But even this standard has come under pressure. In 2019, the Health Council of the Netherlands argued for a lower standard after estimating that tens of thousands of young children and thousands of pregnant women are exposed to excessively high concentrations of lead in drinking water.

New-build Homes

The Cabinet in office at the time agreed. From the end of 2022, the standard will be further reduced to 5 micrograms of lead per litre. Currently, the average concentration of lead in Dutch tap water is 1 microgram per litre. However, the concentration is higher in old houses as well as new-build homes. That is why drinking water companies recommend that for three months after moving into a new house, you should flush the tap for two minutes in the morning before drinking the water.

In the Netherlands, there have already been dozens of lawsuits between tenants and housing associations because of high lead concentrations in tap water. In almost all cases, the judiciary decided that the water pipes had to be replaced or that the tenants were entitled to a rent reduction. In some cases, that reduction was as high as sixty percent until the water pipes were replaced. Not all residents receive a reduction. Only empowered citizens who go to court are offered a solution. The others must walk to the pump.

ZeroWater: Pure Water, Naturally

Water is a natural, and essential, part of our lives. We rely on the quality of what is offered to us. Fortunately, we have tight water regulations in the Netherlands.

But although water quality in the Netherlands is good, it is not 100% pure everywhere. Research shows that more and more harmful substances are found in tap water, groundwater and surface water, sometimes in higher concentrations than the official guidelines prescribe. Some water filters help to remove some of these unwanted substances. However, none of these products provide 100% pure water.

Pure, clean water is vital for a healthy lifestyle. More and more people are consciously engaged in exercise, clean eating and proper hydration to stay fit and healthy for longer. Health insurers and healthcare providers encourage a healthy lifestyle. If we do our best to eat well and exercise regularly, clean water is the next step towards a healthier life. Or a first step if you have yet to start. That should be within reach for everyone.

This great challenge requires continuous research, product development and knowledge sharing. Only in this way can pure water be a given. And be accessible to everyone. That is our mission.

Do you want to ensure that there are no lead residues in your drinking water? ZeroWater removes 99 percent of lead from your tap water. In addition to lead, our filter also removes limescale, glyphosate, chlorine, PFAS (PFOS/PFOA) and more. For more information, see our ZeroWater knowledge center