Millions of UK residents face poisoning risk from lead water pipes

The tap water at Ben Archard’s home in Herne Hill, south London, runs through toxic lead pipes, putting his children at risk of brain damage and prompting him to pay for bottled drinking water.

Tests carried out by the local authority this year found that more than half of the 96 homes on the private estate in Lambeth had levels of lead in their drinking water above the legal 10 micrograms per liter and 60 “water conserved or at risk to maintain water above the safe level for lead in drinking water”.

“It’s scary,” said Archard, an electrician who along with other residents is urging the property owner to rip out the cable and replace it with plastic tubing.

More than 50 years after the installation of lead plumbing was made illegal in Britain, millions of homes still have antiquated plumbing made from the toxic metal.

Although new lead pipes have not been installed in the UK since 1970, they are still “widespread” in buildings built before that time in all regions, according to water regulator Ofwat, which has enabled businesses to 186 million problem in the five years until 2025.

Dealing with the problem is complicated in the UK as water companies are liable for the water quality at people’s taps, but maintenance of the pipes that deliver clean water is shared between the companies and property owners.

The exact number of homes affected is unclear, but industry estimates that nearly a quarter of the 24.8 million homes in England and Wales still have some lead pipes in their service network.

According to the World Health Organization, infants are most vulnerable and at risk of lifelong IQ reduction and behavioral problems if even small amounts of the toxin are circulating through their bloodstreams.

But lead exposure, which can come from old paint and contaminated soil, also increases the risk of miscarriage, premature birth, depression, chronic kidney disease and heart attacks in adults, according to the WHO.

“There is no exposure to lead that is known to have no harmful effects,” the WHO added.

The EU drinking water directive passed last year halved the permissible water content from 10 mcg to 5 mcg per liter in the block. But in the UK there are no plans to introduce a stricter standard for lead, according to the Drinking Water Inspectorate, which is part of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Lead piping is most often replaced on an ad hoc basis – for example, when it is discovered during a building renovation, or when a customer requests a water test and finds that the lead content exceeds legal limits.

But a government-commissioned study last year said this approach would not allow water companies to meet a revised water lead level of 5 mcg per liter or less by 2040.

Lead pipes are removed in Newark, New Jersey. In the US, the problem has become a major political issue as President Joe Biden commits $15 billion to removing lead pipes © Ted Shaffrey/AP

It recommended they embark on a “significant work program” from 2025 to replace lead pipes all the way to the kitchen faucet in higher-risk areas.

This would bring significant economic benefits to the UK, including savings on healthcare costs, support for education and avoided income foregone, says the study by consultancy Water Research Centre.

“Lead plumbing in public and residential buildings remains a measurable public health risk,” the DWI said. “There is a need for action to protect future generations.”

Water companies reduce lead pollution in drinking water by adding orthophosphate, which reduces the amount of lead that dissolves in water.

But phosphorus is also a pollutant that causes algae growth that can kill fish from lack of oxygen, at a time when public concerns about the health of our rivers and lakes are increasing.

Thames Water, Britain’s largest water company and supplier to Archard’s property, said water hardness in London is helping to protect residents.

Although there was almost no lead in the drinking water leaving its treatment plants, it said it would “progressively” replace lead pipes. Tests are conducted at every stage of the treatment process, including regular lead monitoring in random properties, she added.

In the United States, lead pipe replacement has become a key political issue. President Joe Biden last year declared they were “a clear and present threat to the health of our children” and committed $15 billion to remove the lead pipes connecting houses.

But in the UK, the issue has largely slipped under the radar, meaning it’s “probably a lot worse,” said Tim Pye, a member of the Lead Exposure and Poisoning Prevention Alliance, a group of academics and concerned parents campaigning for the Use prevention of lead poisoning in the UK.

The problem is not only historical. Even though the lead pipes up to the kitchen faucet have been removed, many homes still have lead plumbing elsewhere and lead solder is still sold in stores approved for use in closed central heating systems.

Lara Agbaje, an accountant, had a new bathroom and water heater installed three years ago shortly after moving into her 1960s home in Stevenage, 30 miles north of London.

Tests of the water supply soon after revealed that the lead levels were well above the currently recommended 10 micrograms per liter because the plumber had used lead solder to join the copper pipes.

Both Agbaje and her 8-week-old baby tested positive for lead exposure in the blood, forcing them to once again spend thousands of pounds to gut the bathroom and remove the lead solder. Agbaje now uses a water filter to remove any remaining traces of lead.

“The situation has hit us hard and doctors cannot confirm that our baby is not permanently affected,” Agbaje said.

The DWI said “more work is needed to address the legacy of lead piping in fittings.”

Back at Herne Hill, Archard, the owner of his apartment, is still fighting to have the pipes removed. Although the landlord has installed water filters, it’s not as effective because they have to be replaced frequently and it’s unclear who will pay, he said.

Lambeth City Council said it had told the landowner to remove the pipes and was working with the UK Health Agency to assess the potential health impact.

Questions put to the landowner by the Financial Times through the property’s real estate agent went unanswered, but Archard said the landlord attempted to obtain planning permission for an additional floor on the property and the pipes remained in place.

The situation is “frustrating to say the least,” Archard said.

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