Plumbing update: legal limits for lead

Lead-free alternatives are more costly, but worth the outlay in the long run

It has been illegal to use lead pipes and solder on wholesome water systems for over 30 years, but the restrictions are not retrospective, so some older homes may still have them. It was commonly used in some of the earliest-known plumbing systems up until 1970, so some properties still have lead pipes in them.

Lead is a toxic metal that can affect the brain and parts of the nervous system. Exposure to it can be harmful to people’s health and most at risk are children and unborn babies because of those effects on the brain and nervous system. Research into the effects of lead poisoning has revealed symptoms such as joint and muscle pain, memory loss and the lowering of IQ levels.

Pipes or fittings can dissolve into the water within them, and the risk increases with the length of time the water remains standing in the fittings. When the water is drawn from the tap after a long time standing, it could contain lead particles and be unsuitable for drinking.

Drinking water exposure limits are being reviewed in the UK and EU, and changes have been made globally to reduce them: in Canada, the limits have been reduced to half that of the UK, at less than five parts per billion (5µg/l).


New regulation

The Water Supply (Water Fittings) Regulations prohibit the use of lead on any part of a wholesome water system. While lead is allowed on closed-circuit heating and gas systems, any heating system using lead is legally required to be fitted with adequate backflow protection to ensure the complete safety of the drinking water supply.

It is well known that lead solder is cheaper than its lead-free counterpart and it allows joints to be made more easily and at lower temperatures. For these reasons, some contractors will still carry lead solder in their toolbox to use on heating or gas systems. However, the two are virtually indistinguishable by sight so it is easy to confuse them – a potentially dangerous mistake when working with potable water systems. Lead can also be found in brass fittings and research has shown that it can leach into water.

Drinking water quality regulators are already thinking about metals and their compositions. A recent Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) letter on the suitability of metallic materials for use in contact with drinking water is a clear indication of this. It can be viewed on the DWI website: tinyurl.com/dwimetals. At WRAS, we are thinking about our response to it, but won’t be committing to change the WRAS approvals scheme just yet.

WaterSafe has created an informative video explaining the easiest way of testing – a simple scratch test. There are also test kits available that can be used to check for lead solder – they are being used to detect unauthorised use of the substance on wholesome water systems not just by water company enforcers, but also by property owners and facility managers.


The case for education

The illegal use of lead solder is still a problem within the industry, despite the legal prosecution facing those who ignore the regulations. Recent reports of prosecution prove there are some installers continuing to use it in prohibited ways. Since March 2018, lead products are no longer allowed to be sold in the EU to the general public – however, they are still widely available to purchase by ‘professional users’.

The fact that lead is still used in illegal ways proves that there is a way to go in educating clients and plumbing professionals. If lead solder is found in a new development, a developer will have to pay to remove the lead, replace the joints, repair finishes and re-house existing residents… is it really worth the risk?

As professionals, CIPHE members are in a unique and important position to help prevent lead penetrating potable water systems. As an advisor to your clients, you can ensure that they are fully educated on the risks and how to check their pipes.

Ultimately, you have a responsibility to comply with the law and the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulation to prevent dangerous use of lead-based substances. You can really help the public to understand the issues, and the fact that there is no safe limit for lead ingestion means it is vital that you use your position to minimise exposure as much as possible.


This article first appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of P&H Engineering, the magazine for members of the CIPHE. Find out how to join here.

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