Lead lawsuits in the Netherlands – Fighting for clean water

Published on 15/08/2022 Last updated on 23/10/2023

Since the Netherlands’ Health Council announced in 2019 that around 200,000 homes still have toxic lead water pipes, lawsuits against landlords have been pouring in. Meanwhile, the material is disappearing from Dutch homes. For many, however, not fast enough.

“Your tap water flows in part through a lead water pipe. Your tap water probably contains lead particles, but we don’t know how many. Lead particles in tap water can be harmful to your health and that of other residents. Do you want to be certain? Then drink bottled water until we replace the lead water pipes.”

That’s what was written in a letter to Ymere tenants on 14th February 2020. The Amsterdam-based housing association sent it after a group of residents in Amsterdam Noord tested their drinking water and found that all their homes exceeded the legal limit at the time, which was 10 micrograms of lead per liter. In one home, the lead content was 34.6 micrograms per liter. The tenants decided to file a lawsuit.

Changing standards

As water flows through lead pipes, it absorbs small amounts of lead which make the water harmful. Lead is especially toxic to unborn babies and children under seven, but it is also a health hazard for adults. The acceptable amount of lead in water has changed drastically over the last few decades. While in the 1970s scientists believed that 400 micrograms of lead per liter were not harmful, since 2022 the acceptable limit has dropped significantly, to just 5 micrograms per liter. But this limit can be exceeded when lead is present in the water distribution network. According to the Dutch Health Council, between 230,000 and 460,000 people still drink water that flows through lead pipes. Tens of thousands of them are younger than 8 years old.

In 1960, lead pipes were banned. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that drinking water companies began to replace lead pipes. According to experts, the Netherlands led the way, replacing thousands of pipes before 2000. All water transportation pipes have now been replaced, but there are still lead pipes in and between homes. As far as the government is concerned, these pipes are the homeowner’s responsibility. It’s currently estimated that around 200,000 homes are still equipped with lead pipes.

Lead secret

The proposal to halve the standard (which was 10 micrograms of lead per liter until 2021) followed after a report from the Health Council, which called for the replacement of all remaining lead pipes as soon as possible. The group of Ymere residents had discovered lead connector pipes running through their homes, something the Ymere housing association had kept quiet. The group went to court, but the case was weak because lead pipes are not prohibited indoors. Outraged, the residents got the local and national press, the tenants’ association and the city council involved.

The latter stated that the government should take a leading role in this. But the Ministry of the Interior did not agree. It sees little sense in a reporting obligation – as with asbestos – for real-estate owners, and only aims to increase a ‘collective awareness’ of lead. To the dissatisfaction of Amsterdam’s alderman for Housing Laurens Ivens (SP), who spoke on behalf of the five major municipalities. “I think the government does have a responsibility to guarantee safe drinking water. We want to pursue this until the last lead pipe is gone. And if that is not feasible, at least a reporting obligation that you have to submit when selling a house. The municipalities want this, but the minister does not want to impose it on homeowners.’

Lead crisis

It is not surprising that Ivens took the lead. The lead crisis is most prevalent in Amsterdam, where 70,000 homes were built during the period when lead pipes were laid. Some of these homes are managed by Ymere. In Amsterdam Noord (Tuindorpen) alone, 2,715 Ymere homes were found to have lead pipes. Residents have to jump over quite a few legal hurdles to get the pipes removed. When too much lead is found in the water, tenants can get a discount on their rent. But if your lead measurements fall just below the norm, Ymere considers that a discount isn’t necessary. These residents have doubts about the accuracy of the tests carried out by the housing association – they themselves might have measured much higher concentrations.

Lead concentrations are monitored following ‘Random Day Time’ sampling (RDT), a legal European measuring program. The samples are taken from taps used for human consumption. An important condition: the samples must be randomly collected across the distribution area and across times of  day. But drinking water companies choose the most used tap (usually the kitchen tap). Lead concentrations increase the longer water is in contact with the pipes. The results vary depending on consumer behaviour, the complexity of the water installation, water composition and water use. RDT samples are not considered the best way to detect lead concentrations.

Lead lawsuits 

And so the most empowered residents have to go to court, as was the case for the Ymere residents’ collective in Amsterdam Noord. The Amsterdam city council is dissatisfied with Mere’s response so far. According to them, Ymere shows ‘too little good will‘ to solve the problem. The council also complains about the housing association’s lack of consistency in locating and replacing lead pipes. For years, the council-funded tenants’ rights organization !WOON has supported dozens of tenants in their legal battles. Tenants are often found to be right, and receive a hefty rent discount (between 40-60%) until the pipes are removed. Sometimes the rulings go further.

In February 2021, the national rent assessment committee dealt with 33 cases in one go: 30 from Amsterdam and three from Rotterdam.  In one of the cases in Amsterdam Zuid, the court ruled for the first time that the landlord must remove the lead water pipes. The tenants’ collective also negotiated a lower rent as long as the lead in their drinking water exceeds legal limits.

Lead: On the way out

“We are very happy with this verdict”, reacted Oscar Vrij of !WOON enthusiastically. “Actually, the judge is saying: if there is a lead pipe, it must go.”

Ymere announced last year that they had made the thousandth home – under the name Lood Eruit (Lead Out) – lead-free. However, some lead water pipes are still hidden in walls and under the floors of old rental houses. And according to Ymere, some residents don’t want to cooperate with the removal. “We are often confronted with tenants who are not convinced of the need to remove lead water pipes and keep the door closed,” says Ymere regional manager Chris Pettersson. “Too much hassle, they’ve lived there for so long and don’t see the point in it.

This leads to delays in the Tuindorpen in Amsterdam Noord, because water pipes are shared with other houses. “If a tenant in a block of houses refuses to cooperate, we cannot solve it for the neighbors either. Not even if they give permission. We are very sorry about that.” In cases like this, a judge has to be involved to get permission for the work, Petterson says. “We hope it doesn’t have to come to that. We can only do this job together.”

ZeroWater removes lead in tap water

Do you want to make sure there is no lead in your tap water? ZeroWater removes 99 percent lead from water. Our filter also removes limescale, glyphosate, chlorine, PFAS (PFOS/PFOA) and more. Interested? Take a look at our webshop.