Lead in Drinking Water


Lead in plumbing pipes was thought to bring about the demise of the Roman Empire.

Lead in drinking water may arise from these sources:
1. Lead solder used on metal pipe such as copper (this occurred up until 1989 in Australia).
2. Brass fittings and faucets contain a small amount of lead (up to 4.5%).
3. Lead pipe which was used prior to 1930 and may still be present in some of the mains distribution pipes in the older suburbs of many capital cities.
4. PVC pipe may contain lead and cadmium stabilisers which may leach.
5. Lead flashing on roof catchment area supplying the tank water

In the early 1900’s, it was common practice to use lead pipes for plumbing.

Lead in drinking water has become a ‘silent’ issue because the problem is likely to arise from your household plumbing which abdicates responsibility from the water authorities. As such the authorities are correct when they insist that lead is unlikely to be a concern in drinking water, however this assumption is based on the water that reaches your property – not the water that actually comes out of your tap. Furthermore, as water testing does not occur at your tap, lead contamination in household drinking water is likely to be underestimated in Australia. A ten year study conducted between 1998 and 2008 found that drinking water at thousands of schools across the US was contaminated with lead, pesticides and other contaminants (Cutler, 2009). A US study in 2004, revealed excessive levels of lead in the drinking water supply of 20% of the schools tested (Kelly et al, 2004). Closer to home, 292 schools in NSW were found to have up to 12 times the maximum level of lead in their drinking water as a result of drinking from tank water (McDougall and Bissett, 2008). To date, there has been little research on contaminants in drinking water in Australian schools and insignificant data on households despite the fact authorities are well aware of its adverse impact on children’s health. Furthermore, the potential for lead to leach into water increases the longer the water remains in contact with lead in the plumbing. This is a concern in schools and childcare centres where the taps can remain unused for days (over the weekend) and for several weeks during school holidays. If your home was built prior to 1990, there is a good chance it will contain copper pipes with lead solder. Most people receive the bulk of their lead intake from food and water (lead solder in pipes).

The leaching of lead increases when water is chlorinated due to corrosion of the pipes. This will also be exacerbated if the metal pipes are holding current if the building wiring is unbalanced in the home. If you think you are avoiding ingesting lead by drinking tank water – think again. Tank water may be contaminated from lead paint and lead flashings on roofing and guttering as well as lead dust in the environment. For this reason, all tank water should be tested for contaminants such as lead, on a regular basis.

Health effects

In adults: headache, fatigue, muscle pains, anorexia, nausea, vomiting, restlessness, poor coordination, vertigo, memory loss, speech problems, pallor & anaemia. Sterility, abnormal sperm motility & morphology, effects on the kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, joints and damage to the nervous system. Health effects in an unborn foetus: congenital abnormalities, miscarriage, low birth weight, still birth, developmental delays, behavioural and learning disorders. Health effects in children: learning & behavioural disorders, hyperactivity, insomnia & nightmares. Some studies suggesting a loss of up to 2 IQ points for a rise in blood lead levels from 10 to 20µg/dl in children.

Tips to reduce your exposure to Lead in drinking water

  1. Flush the water for at least two minutes before you drink it - if the water has not been used for at least six hours.
  2. Never ever use hot water from the tap for drinking or cooking purposes.
  3. Avoid kettles and urns with exposed elements
  4. Brass taps marketed as 'lead free' may still contain up to 4.5% of lead
  5. Water filter: reverse osmosis or KDF.