By Natalie Lamb, PhD Student at The University of Sheffield and Anglian Water, and chair of the Royal Society of Biology East Anglia branch
Most people in the UK are aware that lead is a problem. The presence of lead can have an adverse impact on mental development and may be a factor in behavioural problems. When people in the UK think of the health hazards surrounding lead, they often think of paint or petrol, because these sources have been very publicised, both through official sources like the HSE and through the media. There have even been claims that removing lead from petrol has sparked a decline in crime! But I don’t think people often associate lead with water and in particular would not expect lead to be in water in the UK today.
Houses that were built before 1970 are likely to have many smaller water pipes made from lead, even though the placement of new lead pipes has not been allowed for four decades. In 1998 it was estimated that 40% of UK homes were still supplied by lead pipes, although this figure would since have dropped because the water industry is doing everything it can to stop it. They are trying to find these pipes, replacing and relining the pipes and using extra chemicals to prevent contamination, but is it enough? For instance, some customers have said they do not want their lead pipes replaced due to the disturbance it would cause their gardens. Does this mean people are more concerned about their gardens then the impact of lead accumulating in their bodies? I don’t believe that is true. I think people just need to be given the right information to make an informed decision.
One thing to emphasise is that, due to the work that water companies put in, you will not get lead coming out of your tap. The Drinking Water Inspectorate and the water companies work together to ensure that adequate samples are taken directly at the customer tap to check that lead is not present. In December 2013, the allowed lead levels actually became stricter, decreasing from 25 μg/l to 10 μg/l. They achieve this goal by adding, or ‘dosing’ the chemical phosphate, at a cost of millions of pounds a year. The problem is, to make sure that no-one has lead in their drinking water, this chemical is added across the board, resulting in approximately 60% of the UK population receiving water dosed with phosphate unnecessarily (as they don’t have lead pipes).
So, why not just get rid of the lead? The problem is, water companies are only responsible for a certain section of the pipe. The customer is responsible for the supply pipe and so would have to pay for the replacement themselves. But why would they replace them if they aren’t aware that lead even exists in water pipes in the UK today? People need to be informed about lead and drinking water so that they can make these kinds of decisions.
Natalie will present her work at STEM for Britain in Parliament on Monday 13th March.