This article contains:
- What are the potential sources of lead in drinking water?
- Why is lead potentially dangerous?
- How do I know how much lead my drinking water contains?
- Want to test your water or other sources for lead?
- What immediate steps can I take to reduce lead exposure?
- References and further reading
What are the potential sources of lead in drinking water?
Lead can be found in air, food, soil and water.
High levels of lead in drinking water can be caused by a range of sources:
- The property has lead pipes
- The property has taps or fittings made of brass which contain lead
- The property has copper pipes with lead based solder*
*The use of lead solder in domestic water systems was banned in 1987.
Usually lead enters drinking water because of the corrosion, a reaction between the water and the lead pipe or solder. A low pH and a low mineral content in water are common causes for corrosion. Water is considered to be hard if it has a high mineral content such as salts containing calcium and magnesium.
In the UK, lead pipes are most common in homes built before the 1970’s, they were often used to join a property to the public water supply. Even when the use of lead pipes was stopped, sometimes, lead based solder was used to join copper pipes in order to save money. It has been suggested, that even brass faucets and fitting which are apparently ‘lead-free’ may leach lead.
Lead levels can decrease as a building ages, because mineral deposits can form a coating on the inside of the pipes if the water is not corrosive, this usually takes about 5 years. Overall, lead levels may be highest in older houses because of the use of lead pipes, but can also occur in newer properties because of a lack of mineral deposits within pipes.
Quick Check List:
- my house was built before 1970
- my pipework is dull grey or black, or has a swollen joint
- there is a pregnant lady or young children drinking water in the property
Why is lead potentially dangerous?
Once lead has entered the human body it is accumulated there; and only very slowly removed. Latest medical advice suggests that lead is most harmful when it is allowed to build up in the body. High levels of lead can cause serious damage to the brain, kidney, nervous system and red blood cells. The greatest risk, even at short-term exposure, exists for:
- Young children
- Pregnant women
Lead is a toxic metal known to be harmful if inhaled or ingested. A potential lead exposure can come from different sources, including soil and dust, food (from contaminated containers or air), ambient air and water (mostly caused by the aforementioned corrosion of plumbing). The degree of harm depends on the level of exposure from all sources.
- Test for lead in water
- Test for lead in soil
- Test for lead in urine, food or other organic substances
How do I know how much lead my drinking water contains?
You should have your water tested for lead, especially when you see lead pipes or signs of corrosion. Lead pipes are of dull grey colour, which are soft enough so that they can easily be scratched with a key. Signs of corrosion are rusty coloured water, frequent leaks, stained dishes or laundry. If your home was built before 1970 the risk that it may have lead pipes is higher. The UK maximum contaminant level for Lead in tap water set by DWI/DEFRA is 10µg/l (= 0.01mg/l = 0.01ppm).
When testing water for lead, make sure to use water that has been sitting in the pipe for a while (like the first water flow in the morning) as lead dissolves slowly in water.
Use the easy-to-use and reliable test kits to test water for lead:
Home Test Kit for Lead – range (single): tests the level of lead in urine, saliva, water, dust, dirt, paint, rice, milk, food, dishes, glasses. This test will give an indication about the amount of lead included with a sensitivity of 0, 0.02, 0.05, 0.1, 0.2, 0.5, 1.0, 2.0 ppm (parts per million).
Watersafe Water Lead Test Kit (single or double ): tests the presence of lead in water. This test will give a positive result if lead is measured above 15ppb* (parts per billion) (or the equivalent of one drop in a large swimming pool). *15ppb = 0.015ppm (mg/l)
eXact LeadQuick Photometer: this handy little device is ideal for users who test for lead in water regularly. It is waterproof, easy to use, delivers quick results with a high precision and testing range.
Want to test your water or other sources for lead?
It is recommended that you test water at different times of the day as the lead content can vary depending how often the pipes have been flushed. It is especially important, to test the first flow of water in the morning – when the water has been sitting in the pipe for at least two hours.
- Use a single or double lead water test kit, which indicates if lead is present above 15ppb.
- Use a lead test kit, which measures the amount of lead in your water in ppm. This test can also be used to test urine, saliva, foods (i.e. fish), paint, dishes, glasses etc. Additionally this urine test kits for lead can also be used to see how much you & your family have potentially been exposed to lead.
- Use a lead soil test – check soil for lead with this accurate & sensitive test. Each packs includes 5 tests and results available within 10 minutes.
- For regular testing of lead in water, the eXact LeadQuick Photometer is ideal
- Alternatively, we also offer heavy metal test kits which can test the total amount of heavy metals in urine, water, food etc or water.
Should you find lead in your drinking water, then we would strongly recommend to contact a health professional for further advice and try and find the source of the pollution.
What immediate steps can I take to reduce lead exposure?
1) Lead in drinking water:
- Don’t consume water which has been sitting in the pipe for more than 6 hours, ie. overnight. Let the water run until it becomes as cold as it can get, one washing up bowl is usually enough. This should be done for every tap – a shower will not flush your kitchen tap. Flushing is important because the longer water is exposed to lead pipes or solder, the more lead it is likely to contain.
- Don’t consume water from the hot tap because hot water dissolves more lead more quickly than cold water. Always use cold water to make baby formula.
- If you can, ie. have a private water supply, treat water to make it less corrosive, this should generally save money as it reduces damage to plumbing.
- There are some water filters available which can remove traces of lead, their effectiveness can vary so make sure that you research your chosen product & change filter cartridges regularly.
- In the long-term it is recommended to replace any lead pipes.
2) Lead in other sources:
- Make sure children wash their hands after playing outside.
- Only remove paint if you are sure it contains no lead, otherwise contact an expert to do so.
- Don’t store food in open cans.
References and further reading:
Drinking Water Inspectorate www.dwi.gov.uk
British Water www.britishwater.co.uk
There are strict standards for the quality of drinking water within Europe mainly laid down in the EU Drinking Water Directive (98/83/EC). These are based on advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Further Free Resources:
Got a question about water testing? Try our complete list of Free Water Testing Resources. Here are the most frequently read guides:
- Click here to download our FREE Water Guide
- Read an overview of the potential contaminants in your water
- Why test your water and water supply?
- Unusual colours, smells and taste of your water & further advice on finding the right test kit
- How to choose the right Water Testing Kit
- Choosing the right water testing kit for a water improvement & purification system, water cooler or a pool, spa or hot tub
- How to understand the results of your Quality Water Test Kit
- How to test for lead correctly and what immediate steps can be taken to reduce lead exposure
- How to get the best drinking water – which water filter?
- How to check if my water filter is working?
- How to test the pH of soap?
- How to find the source of a leak in a property
- How to look after your hot tub safely and test the water regularly
- Commercial Applications for Water Testing: Buyers Guide – Water Testing on vessels, ships as well as water tanks in remote locations
Disclaimer: Only opinions based upon our own personal experience or information detailed in academic journals or other publications is cited. This has been done exclusively for anyone who is interested in this subject but is not intended to replace proper analysis. We cannot accept responsibility and liability of any kind which may result from the application of this information. We always recommend to consult an expert to discuss any test results or get a full recommendation on the specific subject and specific to your situation by an expert.
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