Is testing water for lead a good idea? Well… whilst in the UK we are lucky enough to have a safe supply of drinking water people still worry about all sorts of contaminants getting into their water supply. One of those contaminants is lead, and it can cause very real health issues in humans if it’s not detected and dealt with properly.
Should you test water for lead?
Lead, a heavy metal with the chemical formula Pb is different from other contaminants in that the problem is likely to be caused inside your home or workplace, rather than one associated with the mains water supply coming from your local water utility company. If you suspect you might have lead in your water at home or work then testing your drinking water for lead might be worthwhile. Here’s what you need to do to work out whether lead is present, what to do about it, and why you should be worried.
Lead in drinking water & UK public ealth
Since the 1960s we’ve been aware that lead can have a detrimental impact on human health in all sorts of different ways. Children are particularly affected by lead poisoning as they absorb more of the metal into their bodies than adults.
What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?
Symptoms of lead poisoning can include nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, fatigue and developmental delay. These are all symptoms which can be associated with other health conditions, so don’t leap to the conclusion that your family or work colleagues are being poisoned by lead if a few of these symptoms start to occur.
Since the 1960s when we started to understand more about how lead exposure can cause serious health issues, especially in children, lead has been banned in a whole host of products from petrol to paint. These measures have greatly decreased the amount of lead which most of us are exposed to on a daily basis. However, one of the very few remaining risk factors we can encounter is the way in which drinking water is stored or distributed throughout our homes and workplaces, especially in older buildings that haven’t been refurbished for many years.
Lead pipes – is my property affected?
In the UK the government banned the use of lead in a whole range of products as far back as 1970, and since then lead has not been used for water pipes or water tanks in homes or in commercial properties for drinking water distribution.
Mains pipes were generally never made from lead as they were ceramic or iron, but lead was very popular for domestic use as it is relatively soft and was easily moulded into shape.
If your home or commercial property was built after 1970, there should be no lead plumbing or lead pipes to worry about. If your property pre-dates 1970, and has had the kitchen or plumbing system renovated since then, the chances are that pipes will have been ripped out and replaced with copper or plastic but it’s always worth checking. However, older, un-renovated properties might still have sections of lead piping, including the pipe which runs from the water mains in the street into your home stop cock.
How to check for lead pipes & plumbing
There are a few ways of working out whether you still have lead pipes in your property. Ask around your neighbours to see if they have ever had to replace lead pipes, assuming their houses date from the same period. Look in cellars, under floor voids or behind kitchen cabinets to get a good look at the pipes running to your kitchen tap or water storage tank. Lead pipes are fairly easy to spot as they are a dull silvery grey when compared to the bright shiny copper or plastic pipes which are the modern alternative. Some older cold water storage tanks may also be lead-lined.
If you do discover lead pipes then don’t panic; it’s only the water pipes leading to taps used for drinking which have to be replaced to protect the people’s health. Some local councils offer grants to those on low incomes to pay towards the cost of having lead pipes replaced, so check before agreeing to go ahead with any work.
Testing water for lead
If you can’t determine whether sections of your pipes are lead, or you are unable to access cellars, floor voids or behind cabinets to get a good look, then the other option is to take a sample of the water and have it tested to determine the levels of lead, if any.
Lead testing kits are available to let you do this at home, or you could choose to send samples off to the specialists at WTS for expert analysis in the laboratory instead. Testing water for lead or taking samples should be carried out first thing in the morning, when the water has been sitting in the pipes overnight and the concentration of lead will be at its highest.
Tests for lead which involve sending samples to laboratories for analysis will be more sensitive than tests which you perform yourself at home. WTS laboratory lead tests are sensitive enough to detect lead at a concentration of 15 parts per billion; equivalent to one drop of lead in an Olympic sized swimming pool.
What if water testing shows lead in my drinking water?
If testing water for lead shows its presence in your drinking water, then the obvious solution is to get a plumber in and have the pipes replaced with more suitable materials. This will normally take a few weeks to organise though, especially if the lead problems are caused by the main pipe running from the public mains supply into your property.
In the meantime you can reduce the amount of lead in your drinking water by running your cold tap for a few minutes before using it every day, and never drinking water from the hot tap as the concentration of lead in warm or hot water is significantly higher. Specialist water treatment chemicals can also be added to the water to reduce lead concentrations, but these measures are only a temporary solution, and definitely not a substitute for replacing the lead pipes as soon as you can.
Metals and lead testing – water sampling experts
Contact WTS to find out more about our laboratory water analysis services including testing water for lead, metals and heavy metals analysis, waste water and trade effluent analysis, chemical and microbiological testing and in-field sampling services.
With offices in London serving the South and South East England, Manchester (North West), Birmingham (Midlands), Bristol (South East England and Wales), Leeds (North and North East) and Glasgow (Scotland), supported by regional teams of specially trained technicians, in-field specialists and consultants we can offer professional, cost effective environmental support solutions across the whole of the UK and Ireland.
Contact us to learn how our expert lead testing and other environmental management support solutions can help you… contact us →
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