Is there lead in my water?

Find out why lead in water is harmful, whether your property has lead pipes, and what you can do about it.

Exposure to lead can be harmful to our health, especially for unborn babies and young children, so it’s important to keep lead levels in drinking water low.

Follow the links for Public Health England information on the effects of lead and more on how we sample for lead as part of the water quality standards.

Lots more information about how to check for lead is below. If you're concerned that you may have lead plumbing, or would like your drinking water checked for lead, please call us to arrange a visit to your property and we'll take a water sample for analysis, free of charge:

0330 303 0368

 

How lead can get into water

None of our water mains are made of lead, and water leaving our supply works doesn't contain lead.

Modern service pipes (made up of the communication and supply pipes that bring water into your property) are made of blue polyethylene. Lead service pipes were phased out and made illegal 50 years ago. Some properties built before 1970 may still have lead pipes in them, or connecting to the water mains, but properties built after 1970 are unlikely to.

Lead can get into drinking water that it's been in contact with for an extended period, such as overnight. The longer water is in contact with lead, the more lead is likely to be in it. If a lead pipe is damaged or flattened (which can happen when driveways and paths are replaced) the amount of lead that can get into the water increases. As well as lead supply pipes, lead can also enter water through lead solder joints, lead-lined tanks or plumbing fittings and taps.

 

Checking your property for lead

If you live in an older property you may still have some lead plumbing.

To identify lead pipes, look at the pipes leading to your kitchen tap or internal stop-tap (usually under the kitchen sink):

  • unpainted lead pipes are dull grey and soft but show the shiny metal beneath when scraped gently
  • tapping a lead pipe with a metal object produces a dull 'thud' rather than a clear ringing.

Even if internal lead plumbing has already been replaced, it’s important to check whether any underground water pipes in your garden or driveway are made of lead, as these are the property owner's responsibility. To do this, check the pipe coming from your outside stop tap to your property (you might want to ask for help to do this if access is difficult). Usually, as well as the above, external lead pipes:

  • are about 25mm (1 inch) in diameter
  • have a rounded swollen joint where they connect to the stop-tap or meet other lead pipes.

If there's no lead pipework you'll see pipes made from either:

  • copper (hard, bright or dull brown)
  • iron (very hard, dark grey or rusty)
  • polyethylene (coloured blue, black)
  • PVC (grey) pipes.

Other household sources of lead in water can include:

  • Lead solder joints in household copper pipework. Although this was banned in 1987, lead solder is still sometimes used illegally, so always use a trusted, licensed plumber.
  • lead-lined storage tanks may still be in older properties. If the drinking water tap in the kitchen is supplied from a household storage tank, we advise updating it to connect directly to the mains, and recommend replacing the lead-lined tank.

 

If you have lead pipes

If you think you have lead pipes, call us on the number above. If our tests show that the level of lead in your drinking water is higher than the legal limit (the prescribed concentration value or PCV) we advise you to replace your lead pipes as soon as possible.

When replacing lead plumbing, the permanent solution is to replace all lead pipework with pipes made from safer materials. Remember:

  • copper and lead pipes should never used together
  • lead solder shouldn't be used on copper pipes for drinking water
  • if alternative, non-metallic pipework is used, electrical earthing should be checked by a qualified electrician.

What we'll do 

  • If analysis shows the concentration of lead is greater than the legal limit, we’ll remove any sources of lead from our pipework and advise you on replacing the affected parts of your domestic plumbing system.
  • If you choose to replace all the internal and external pipework at your property, we’ll remove any of our lead pipework, up to the main, and replace it with pipes made from safer materials, free of charge.
  • If your external supply pipe is made of lead and leaking, we’ll replace up to 10 metres of it, free of charge.

 

If you need to use lead pipes

If you've identified lead pipes we always advise replacing them as soon as possible.

If you do need to use lead pipes, don't drink the water that has been standing in the pipes overnight:

  • first thing in the morning, run the tap for about one minute (instead of wasting water, fill a bowl to water plants)
  • you'll need to run the tap for longer if your cold kitchen tap is more than 50 metres from the water mains
  • as a guide, run your tap an extra 15 seconds for every extra 10 metres to the water main.

You should also run the water for a minute if the tap hasn’t been turned on all day – for instance, if you’ve been out at work.

Always run the tap before making up bottle feeds for infants. Ensure that the cold kitchen tap is fed directly from the water main.

If you have lead pipes, only use the flushed cold kitchen tap for drinking and cooking – never use any hot tap.

 

FAQs

Lead in drinking water and the law?

It can be found in drinking water if lead pipes, or copper pipes with lead solder joints have been used in the domestic plumbing system. It isn’t normally found in untreated water sources like rivers, lakes or reservoirs.

The maximum Prescribed Concentration or Value (PCV) for lead is 10 microgrammes per litres (10ugPb/l). We must meet a strict standard on the level of lead in drinking water.

How does lead get in my drinking water?

Some properties built before 1970 may still have lead pipes in them, or connecting them to the water mains, but properties built after 1970 are unlikely to.

Lead can dissolve into the water when it stays in contact with lead pipes, lead-lined tanks, or lead solder joints for several hours – for example overnight. The longer time that water lies in contact with lead, the more lead can dissolve in the water.

If a lead pipe is damaged for example when driveways and paths are replaced or really old the amount of lead in drinking water can increase.

What are the health risks associated with lead?

Lead is a harmful toxic heavy metal and the health risks are well known and understood. It gets into our bodies by eating and drinking it, or breathing it in.

The main risk is the potential effect on the brain development in children. Young and unborn children are therefore considered to be at special risk. But long term exposure affects everyone.

What symptoms might I experience?

Short term exposure to high levels of lead can cause a metallic taste and symptoms of abdominal pain, sickness, loss of appetite, low blood pressure, kidney and liver damage.

Long term exposure may cause headaches, irritability, tiredness, muscle fatigue and can affect brain development in unborn babies and children up to 10 years old. Those pregnant and young children are therefore more at risk from lead than adults, although lead poisoning can occur in adults which can lead to serious illness.

Lead is a cumulative toxin meaning that concentrations of lead within the body, especially in the teeth, bones and some internal organs, can build up over time. It is therefore sensible to ensure that exposures to lead are kept to a minimum.

When you will be starting work in my road?

How do I check if I have lead pipes?

If you live in an older property you may still have some lead plumbing. Even if you have already replaced your internal plumbing, it is important to check if any underground water pipes in your garden or driveway are made of lead and storage tanks in the loft.

To identify lead pipes, look at the pipes leading to your kitchen tap or internal stop-tap (usually under the kitchen sink):

  • unpainted lead pipes are a dull grey colour and relatively soft compared to other metals (e.g., copper) but show the shiny metal beneath when scraped gently; tapping a lead pipe with a metal object produces a dull 'thud' rather than a clear ringing.

Even if internal lead plumbing has already been replaced (usually with copper), it’s important to check whether any underground water pipes in your garden or driveway are made of lead, as these are the property owner's responsibility. To do this, check the pipe coming from your outside stop tap to your property (you might want to ask for help to do this if access is difficult). Usually, as well as the above, external lead pipes:

  • are about 25mm (1 inch) in diameter
  • have a rounded swollen joint where they connect to the stop-tap or meet other pipes.

If there's no lead pipe work, you'll see pipes made from either:

  • copper (hard, bright or dull brown)
  • iron (very hard, dark grey or rusty)
  • polyethylene (coloured blue, black)
  • PVC (grey) pipes.

How do you treat my water to make it safe?

We use phosphate treatment, to prevent lead dissolving from pipe work. This is known as plumbosolvency. We also sample and analyse drinking water regularly at our water supply works, reservoirs and at our customers’ taps. To check lead levels we take a first draw sample, first thing in the morning, and then a sample after we have run the taps for a few minutes. This is a flushed sample.

What are lead solder joints?

Lead used to be used to solder the joints on copper pipe work. It was made illegal in 1987 but there is evidence that it is still sometimes used.

You should always use a trusted WaterSafe plumber.

My water comes from a storage tank

If the drinking water tap in the kitchen comes from a household storage tank, we strongly advise you to updating it to connect directly to the mains and recommend replacing any lead lined tanks.

What to do if you have lead pipes?

If you think you have lead pipes and want to confirm this, call us on 0330 303 0368, and we can arrange to come and test your water for presence of lead, free of charge.

If our tests show that the level of lead in your drinking water is higher than the legal limit, we’ll remove any sources of lead from our pipe work and advise you to replace the affected parts of your plumbing system.

We’ll provide advice on how to flush though your system.

We can replace up to 10 metres of supply pipe free of charge. The responsibility for replacing any internal domestic lead pipe work lies with the property owner.

Also, if your external supply pipe is made of lead and is leaking, we’ll replace up to 10 metres of it, also free of charge.

What should I replace lead pipes with?

All lead pipe work with pipes made from safer materials like XXXXXXXXXXXXX

Remember:

  • copper and lead pipes should never be used together
  • lead solder shouldn't be used on copper pipe joints for drinking water
  • if alternative, non-metallic pipe work is used, electrical earthing should be checked by a qualified electrician.

What do I do if I have lead pipes in my house?

If you've found lead pipes in your property, we always strongly recommend replacing them as soon as possible.

I can’t replace my lead pipes, what do I do?

If you do need to keep your lead pipes, don't drink the water that has been standing in the pipes overnight:

  • first thing in the morning, run the tap for about one minute, use this water for plants.
  • if you have a long supply pipe you may have to flush for longer; as a guide, run your tap an extra 15 seconds for every extra 10 metres of supply pipe to the water main.
  • if the tap hasn’t been turned on all day, for instance if you’ve been out at work, run the mains fed tap (cold kitchen tap) for a minute
  • always run the tap before making up bottle feeds for infants.
  • use only thoroughly flushed water from the cold water tap for drinking and when making baby milk formula.
  • ensure that the cold kitchen tap is fed directly from the water main, not from a storage tank.
  • always use water from the cold water tap for drinking water or cooking. Hot water dissolves lead more quickly than cold water and is therefore more likely to contain more lead.
  • if hot water is needed for drinking water or cooking, water should be taken from the cold water tap and heated up.

What if I have lead service pipes (supply and/or communication pipes)

If there is a level of lead in your drinking water (determined by sampling and analysis) it is most likely to be due to the service pipes to your property. Service pipes are the pipes that carry water from the water main in your street direct to your property. The service pipe is made up of two parts – the communication pipe and the supply pipe.

Southern Water is responsible for the water main in your street and the communication pipe up to, and including, the stopcock at the boundary of your property. The property owner is normally responsible for the supply pipe from the stopcock into the property and all of the indoor plumbing. Southern Water will offer to replace 10 metres of supply pipe, free of charge, when we replace the communication pipe.

 
 
 
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