Lead in drinking water
Lead in drinking water is a recognised health concern. There are no lead water mains in Ireland but there are still some lead pipes remaining in the public network.
Health risk of lead
Regular intake of even low levels of lead can have small health effects for everyone.
The greatest health risk is for babies in the womb, infants and young children. Bottle-fed infants are especially at risk. This is because all of their food comes from formula, which is made up with drinking water.
The regulatory limit for lead in drinking water has been reducing over time and is now at a very low level of 10µg/L or 10 microgrammes per litre.
How lead can get into drinking water
The drinking water as it leaves the treatment plant contains little or no Lead. However when drinking water comes in to contact with lead pipes, especially when left standing in a pipe for a period of time, Lead can dissolve into the drinking water.
The amount of lead which dissolves into drinking water can depend on the following:
- The length of lead pipework the water passes through
- How long the water is sitting in the lead pipe
- The temperature of the water
- Whether your water is hard or soft
Checking for lead
Lead in drinking water has no taste, smell, or unusual appearance. Here are some things you can do to check to see if you have lead in your drinking water.
The two factors in checking for lead pipes are the age of your property and your existing pipes and fittings.
1. Age of your property
Lead was often used as a plumbing material in properties that were built up to and including the 1970s. If your property was constructed before 1970 and you have not upgraded or replaced the internal plumbing, you may have lead pipes or fittings.
2. Your existing pipes
Find the water pipe where it enters your property and runs to the kitchen tap. You should do this even if your internal plumbing has been upgraded or replaced, as this may still be a lead pipe. Check the colour and appearance of as much of the pipe as possible using this guide. If in doubt, contact your local plumber.
|Colour||Appearance / density||Material|
|Dark grey or black with a dull coating (unless painted)||
Joints appear swollen
Shiny silver when scraped with a knife
|Grey, black or blue||Hard||Plastic|
|Brown/orange colour, can be bright or dull||Hard||Copper|
|Dark, may be rusty||Very hard||Iron|
Test your water for lead
You may wish to test your own tap water for lead. You will need to organise this yourself. There are a number of considerations when arranging for your water to be tested.
You should use a laboratory with accreditation (approval) for testing lead in drinking water. The Irish National Accreditation Board (INAB) lists all accredited laboratories on its website. Laboratories accredited with United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) or equivalent are also recognised for testing.
It is important to understand that a single test for lead in water may not provide a full picture of the lead levels in the drinking water at your property. This is because the amount of lead in water can be influenced by other factors. These include; pipe length, the time water has been standing in a pipe, temperature, and the chemical nature of the water.
It is also advisable that you take a sample of water from the tap after it has been sitting for at least 30 minutes (but preferably overnight), followed by a sample after flushing the tap for 1 minute, and then another sample after flushing the tap for 5 minutes. The results from this testing should give you a good idea if flushing the tap will reduce lead levels to within safe limits.
Precautions to take
If you think you may have lead in your drinking water these precautions can be used before you resolve the issue.
Use the cold water tap or bottled water
- Ensure that your drinking water is taken only from the cold water tap in your kitchen and that this water comes straight into your house from the water mains. Do not drink water from the cold water tap in your bathroom as this typically comes from a tank in your attic. Only use water from the cold water tap in the kitchen for drinking, cooking and making baby formula.
- Use bottled water, however please be aware that bottled water may contain high sodium levels. This may need to be considered for bottle fed babies. Please see the advice from the HSE on using bottled water to prepare baby feeds and bottles.
- Please note boiling water will NOT remove lead from the water.
Flush your water before use
- If the tap has not been used for many hours, running or flushing the water before using it for drinking or cooking may lower the level of lead. The longer water has been sitting in the pipe the more likely lead will dissolve into it.
- However, the only way to know if you have lead in your drinking water, and if flushing lowers it, is by testing it before and after flushing.
If flushing does not lower the lead level
- If your water has been tested and remains above 10µg per litre limit after flushing you should do the following.
- Use safe drinking water from some other source. This is especially important for pregnant women, bottle-fed infants and young children.
- You can use the water for toilet flushing, showering and bathing, laundry and dishwashing.
Replacing lead pipes
If you have lead pipes inside your house, the recommendation from the World Health Organisation (WHO), the EPA, and the HSE is to replace them.
Customer pipe responsibility
You are responsible for the pipe from the outer edge of the property boundary to the building and all the inside plumbing. There are other types of connections (e.g. where the connection is shared or comes through the back garden) but these are not common. See who's responsible for which pipes.
Irish Water and lead pipe replacement
As part of Irish Water's Leakage Reduction Programme, we are removing all remaining lead pipes from the public water network and replacing them with plastic (polyethylene) pipes.
Please note, as lead in drinking water is a property specific issue, any results within your water supply that shows high levels of lead do not mean that the entire water supply is affected.
Lead pipe replacement
This is a scheme to replace any public side lead service connection pipes free of charge to customers who have replaced the private side lead supply pipe.