If you have lead in your tap water, it could cause nerve damage, reproductive problems and cancer. Even if you don’t have lead pipes in your home, this heavy metal could still be present in your drinking water. Read on to find out more about lead, and how to avoid it.
Lead is a heavy metal, present in small amounts in the earth’s crust. It is soft, malleable, and sturdy, which makes it a good material for a number of uses. And indeed, the ancient Romans used it to build their water pipes, sewage systems, and aqueducts. The words plumbing and plumber come from the roman “plumbum.”
Lead’s toxicity was known as early as the first century BC, when the architect Vitruvius was the first to recognise the adverse health effects of lead, noticing that those who worked with the material were often ill.
Regardless of the warnings, lead continued to be used for water infrastructure. In modern times, lead has been used in cosmetics, toys, paints, petrol, batteries, solder, ammunition, and plumbing materials.
Since the 1930’s, policies have been put in place to ban lead and lead-containing products, such as lead-based paint, lead-containing petrol, and lead water pipes.
Despite this, we are still exposed to lead because of human activity. Lead is released into the air from industrial sources (such as old mines) as well as aviation fuel.
According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), food is the main source of exposure to lead. The biggest contributors are bread (8.5%), tea (6.2%), potatoes and potato products (4.9%), fermented milk products (4.2%), beer (4.1%) and tap water (6.1%).
But if you live in a home with lead water pipes, you may be exposed to dangerous levels of lead in your tap water. This may be the case if your home was built before the 1960’s. What’s more, water pipes in new-build homes can also release heavy metals into the water.
The ancient Romans knew it, and modern science has confirmed it: lead is toxic to the body and brain.
Chronic exposure to lead can cause anemia, kidney problems, vitamin D deficiency, impaired metabolism and neurotoxicity. It has been linked to reproductive health problems such as reduced sperm quality and an increased risk of miscarriage. It is also associated with low birth weight, delayed postnatal growth, as well as behavioral problems like hyperactivity. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified lead as a “probable human carcinogen.”
Lead exposure is particularly dangerous for children. It 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 from lead exposure because they drink more in proportion to their body weight and their intestines absorb lead more easily.
Standards around lead have changed drastically over the years.
From 1983, the European Drinking Water Directive specified that tap water should contain no more than 50 µg of lead per litre of water.
In 1997, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended that this standard be significantly tightened. As a result, the current standard is 10 µg of lead per litre. But even this new lower limit has come under pressure.
Indeed, the latest European Directive on the quality of water destined for human consumption states that lead concentrations should be as low as reasonably practicable. It states that by 2036, the limit value for lead in drinking water will be set to 5 µg per litre.
A recent report by the Netherlands’ National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) finds that adults in the Netherlands are exposed to between 0,41-0,74 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight per day (µg/kg/bw/day). For children under 7, the values were between 0,88-1,3 µg/kg/bw/day. These levels are lower than the tolerable daily intake (TDI) of 3,6 µg/kg/bw/day, but the EFSA says that even at these levels, adverse effects from lead, particularly in children, cannot be excluded. In an interview with De Groene Amsterdamer, Fred Woudenberg, Head of Living Environment at GGD Amsterdam stated that lead is more harmful than we previously thought.
According to the RIVM, lead exposure via tap water is at times too high. People living in old houses with lead water pipes, as well as newly built homes with new pipes and taps, are at risk of a higher exposure to lead than is considered safe. Their study finds that 45-68% of the total daily lead exposure comes from these sources.
In 2019, research by UNICEF found that almost 60,000 children in The Netherlands have been affected by lead poisoning, and had levels of at least 5 µg of lead per decilitre of blood. The leading cause? Lead water pipes. This prompted conversations about lowering the current standard from 10 µg of lead per litre to 5 µg as early as 2022.
In 2020, NOS reported on families living in Amsterdam Noord, who have to collect water from a public tap every day, because the water flowing through their homes contains dangerous amounts of lead. An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 homes in the Netherlands still have lead water pipes.
In 1915, the French government banned the use of lead paint. In 1963, the use of lead for water pipes and water reservoirs was strictly prohibited, except in cases of “absolute necessity”.
A decree dated 5th April 1995 prohibited the use of lead in water distribution pipes, both in public infrastructure and private houses. In 1996, a new regulation banned the use of lead-containing solder.
However, according to a report by France’s General Council for Environment and Development, there are lead water pipes in around 7,5 million homes in France. It’s also important to note that it isn’t just lead pipes that can be a source of lead water contamination. Some solders can contain up to 60% lead, alloys containing copper and brass can contain up to 5% lead, and some polyvinyl chlorides (PVC) from abroad can also contain lead.
French consumer association UFC-Que Choisir analysed official results from the Ministry of Health to evaluate the content of lead in water. It turns out that 3% of the analyses found an excessive amount of lead. The most affected areas are old city centres such as in Nice, Toulon, Dijon, Avignon, La Rochelle, and Créteil. However, these results remain uncertain because the number of samples taken is very low (on average 15 per city, over a period of two and a half years).
According to the report, these analyses are too limited and do not permit us to understand consumers’ real level of lead exposure.
It is difficult to understand the precise situation regarding lead in private homes in Italy, because there is no up to date information on buildings. There are most definitely some buildings that do not meet building regulations when it comes to lead. These are most often found in historical city centres.
The Italian Institute of Health (ISS), has attempted to reassure that water supplied by the public water networks is well within the new legal limit of 10 µg of lead per litre of water. The problem comes from private water networks. High lead concentrations can be due to pipes, tap fixings or solder containing lead or brass.
A recent article from the regional Agency for Environmental Protection in Tuscany estimates that in Italy, 160,862 children and teenagers (from 0 to 19 years old) have lead blood-levels exceeding 5 µg per decilitre, and 20,963 have levels above 10 µg per decilitre.
At a national level, the latest data is rather old, because it dates back to a research project supported by the Ministry of Health and carried out by the Institute of Health between 2002 and 2004 in 21 cities and 15 regions. Between 2-4 % of the 6,000 samples were found to have lead concentrations above the limits. Most of these were from buildings built prior to the 60’s. Samples taken from the public network that runs between water reservoirs and private homes did not show issues. This means that the problem concerns private owners, who must check whether their water pipes are made of lead and get their water analysed to discover whether it contains high levels of lead.
Several studies show that the amount of lead in German drinking water still exceeds regulations. In Germany, lead is mainly ingested through food and drinking water.
Although lead pipes have not been used here since 1973, they can still be found in old buildings. What’s more, lead-containing materials are still permitted for faucets, pipe connections and pumps. According to a study from 2021, the contamination of stagnant water with lead cannot be ruled out.
Between 1997 and 2019, scientists examined a total of 16,060 drinking water samples (see graphic). 8.43% of these samples contain higher levels of lead than the new planned limit of 5 µg/L.
One of the major challenges is that there is little data regarding how many households still have lead pipes. Systematic investigations have not been carried out by German municipalities.
A study by Döhla et al. (2021) evaluated drinking water from the city of Bonn and found that 18.15% of the samples examined from 2014 to 2019 contained lead at concentrations that were above the EU limit, sometimes by far. If the planned new limit of 5 µg per litre were to apply today, a quarter of all samples examined would not meet the requirements. The authors of the study stated that it could be assumed that other municipalities in Germany – with the exception of Frankfurt am Main and the southern German states – might also be confronted with increased levels of lead in drinking water.
A study by Stiftung Warentest shows that, in addition to Bonn and Frankfurt am Main, the new and northern federal states in particular could be possible hotspots.
An investigation by the Federal Environmental Specimen Bank (UPB) on blood levels of lead in students from Münster found that the lead concentration has fallen from over 70 µg per litre (1981) to below 15 µg per litre (2008). In recent years, exposure to lead has remained constant at around 10 µg per litre.
In the United Kingdom, the limit for the amount of lead in water is 10 µg per litre.
The use of lead for water pipes was banned in the UK in 1969. This means that houses built after 1970 should not have lead water pipes. But lead is still a problem. It’s estimated that almost a quarter of the 24,8 million properties in England and Wales still have lead water pipes in their supply network.
In Ireland, the EU Drinking Water Directive applies, which means currently the limit level of lead in drinking water is set to 10 µg per litre, to be halved by 2036.
However, recently, Irish Water audits have found that levels of lead are above the safe limits in 12 counties. In Co Roscommon, for example, one sample registered at almost 15 times the limit, at 148 µg per litre. It is estimated that 200,000 homes in Ireland are still affected by lead contamination, according to the Head of Asset Management at Irish Water.
Water companies in Ireland are working to replace lead water pipes in the public and private networks, but according to a recent report by the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), at the current rate of progress, it will take 24 years before the risks posed by lead water pipes are properly addressed.
The use of lead for water pipes was banned in the United States in 1986. However, the ban did not address service lines made of lead. As a result, an estimated 15-22 million Americans still get their tap water through lead pipes.
The maximum contaminant level goal set by the EPA for lead in drinking water is zero. But this is a goal, and not a legal limit. The EPA’s action level for lead – that means the level at which water companies must take additional steps to control the level of contaminants in the water, is 15 µg of lead per litre. Given the fact that many service pipes are still made of lead, the EPA’s goal of zero lead in drinking water is far from being achieved.
The replacement of lead pipes has become a key political issue in the US. In 2021, President Joe Biden declared that these pipes were a clear and present danger to children’s health and committed $15 billion to removing the lead pipes that connect homes to the national water distribution system.
The first thing to do is identify whether your water pipes are made of lead. There are two ways you can do this:
If you find lead pipes in your home, it is important to replace them. If you are in a rental property, contact the landlord or housing association.
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 courts decide that the water pipes have to be replaced or that the tenants were entitled to a rent reduction. In some cases, that reduction is as high as sixty percent until the water pipes are replaced.
A new water pipe or new tap can release lead or other metals to the drinking water during the first three months after installation. To avoid drinking water laced with metals, follow these steps:
If you suspect or know you have lead water pipes in your home, take the following precautions:
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1908 – Health Council of the Netherlands warns of dangers of lead in drinking water
1960 – Ban on laying new lead pipes
1978 – Above 400 micrograms per litre causes no significant risk (Zielhuis & Wibowo)
1982 – WHO advises to stay below 100 micrograms of lead per litre
1983 – 1997 – 50 micrograms lead per litre – European Drinking Water Directive
1998 – 2013 – 25 micrograms lead per litre – European Drinking Water Directive
1998 – 2022 – 10 micrograms lead per litre – European Drinking Water Directive