When we started to pipe water into our house and channel sewage away in the Victorian era, engineers and inventors were completely unaware of the dangers of lead from a health point of view.
Fast forward a century and a bit, and we know that exposure to lead can cause damage to our internal organs, with children being affected more than adults.
Much of the lead in our everyday lives has been banned, and there is no longer lead in paint or in children’s toys. Water companies have been working hard to replace the lead mains pipes, but there are many properties in the UK which still have lead pipes.
How do I know if my house has lead pipes?
The law regarding plumbing and pipework in houses changed in 1970, so if your home was built after this date, it should not contain any internal lead pipework.
It is, however, not as simple to say that all houses built before that date will have lead pipes, as many will have had all of their pipes or some of the pipes replaced over time. More investigation is needed, and the two key places to check are under your kitchen sink and at your internal stop cock.
There is a variety of different materials used to make domestic piping, and unless you’re a plumber it can be hard to tell them apart.
The pipe you need to look at is the pipe flowing into the stopcock from the mains outside. It is usually pretty easy to tell if the pipe is plastic or copper, but the two materials which cause confusion are lead and galvanised metal, as they both look similar to the untrained eye.
There are a few things to look out for. Galvanised metal may have spots of rust, and there will be no rust on lead which tarnishes and looks dull instead. Lead is very soft, and if you scratch the surface of the metal with a fingernail or knife, it is easy to make a mark.
Lead pipes also often have irregular looking bends and curves unlike other types of pipes. If you are still in doubt about your pipes, ask a plumber to come in and check for you.
What to do about it?
Decisions about what to do about lead piping will vary depending on a number of factors.
If there is only a small section of piping, it may be perfectly safe just to leave it alone, especially if it is just supplying a toilet or basin.
If your house piping is completely lead, it may be safer and more reassuring to bite the bullet and just get everything replaced by a plumber, especially if you have small children in the house and the lead pipes are supplying your drinking water. Replacing all the pipes will cause some disruption and is really a job for a qualified professional only.
If there are lead pipes in your home, or the lead levels in your water are high because of the mains pipes, the responsibility is shared between whoever owns the property and the water company.
If you decide to replace the pipes inside your home, most water companies have a reciprocal agreement whereby they will replace the pipework outside the house and in the street.
If supply pipes are shared between several properties, it is easier and more cost-effective for all properties to make the switch at the same time.
Before the work is done to replace your lead pipes, there are many simple steps which can be taken to reduce the amount of lead you are drinking in your water.
If you have been out all day, or first thing in the morning, run the tap for a few minutes before filling your glass or kettle. Try not to bang or knock the lead pipes as this could also increase the amount of lead in your water.
Special lead filters are available for drinking water which can help reduce lead levels, but the only way of reducing in a big way is to replace your old lead pipes with modern plastic ones.