The use of lead pipes has been banned since 1970 because of the danger that lead can cause to health – yet many older homes still have the pipes installed. And, according to WaterSafe, more than two-thirds (68%) of homeowners don’t know whether they have potentially harmful lead pipes in their property.

The problem with not knowing is that, if you do have lead pipes, small amounts of lead may dissolve in the water you drink and cook with – causing it to build up in the body over time.

Here in the UK, most people’s risk of lead poisoning is small because it’s generally not used in things like paint, petrol, and food containers. But the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that, worldwide, one million people die from lead poisoning every year.

Millions more are also exposed to low levels of lead that can cause chronic health problems, such as anaemia and high blood pressure – as well as damage to the reproductive organs, kidneys, and brain.

If you’re unsure whether your home or business has lead water pipes, then there’s a simple check you can do to find out. We’ll explain more about this below. We’ll also look more closely at what lead is, what the symptoms of lead poisoning are, and what to do if you think you may be at risk.

What is lead and what’s it used for?

Lead is a heavy metal found in small amounts in the Earth’s crust that can be highly toxic to humans and animals if breathed in, swallowed, or absorbed. It’s soft, dense, and moldable, and has been used by humans for centuries to make everything from hair dyes and children’s toys to house paint and water pipes.

Though many of its uses have gone on to become banned, it’s still widely used to make things like ammunition, car batteries, and cable sheathing.

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning

Because we can’t smell or taste lead and it’s used in ways that often aren’t visible to the naked eye, many people are unaware that they’ve been repeatedly exposed to it until it’s built up in the body, often over months or years.

Symptoms of lead poisoning are varied but, according to the NHS, in adults, it can include…

  • tummy pain
  • high blood pressure
  • constipation
  • joint and muscle pain
  • pain, tingling, and numbness of the extremities
  • headache
  • miscarriage or premature birth in pregnant women
  • fatigue
  • memory loss

Young children under six are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, as they absorb four to five times more lead than an adult from a given source. Plus, because their brains are still developing, lead can poisoning can cause slowed growth, hearing and speech problems, and behavioural and learning difficulties.

Signs of lead poisoning in children can include…

  • tummy pain
  • weight loss and loss of appetite
  • vomiting
  • constipation
  • irritability and fatigue
  • hearing loss
  • developmental delay and learning difficulties

In pregnancy, lead can also pass from the mother to the unborn baby, which can increase the risk of miscarriage and developmental issues (both mental and physical).

How to check whether you have lead water pipes

How to check whether you have lead water pipes

If you’re unsure whether your home or business has lead pipes, then there are a couple of simple tests you can use to check, which are recommended by WaterSafe and other water companies.

Wearing protective gloves and a mask to protect yourself from potential lead exposure, simply…

1. Start by locating the pipes in your kitchen cupboards, under the stairs, or at your internal stop tap (usually where your water supply enters your home).

2. Look for pipes that are dull grey in colour. They may also have rounded, swollen joints where they join other pipes.

3. Carefully scratch the surface of the pipe with something sharp. If the pipe feels soft and reveals a shiny, silver-coloured metal underneath, then the pipes are very likely to be lead.

4. You can also tap lead pipes with a metal object to see whether they produce a ‘thud’ sound, rather than a clear ringing sound that you’d get with copper or iron pipes.

Note: To prevent lead exposure, it’s important to wear protective gloves, goggles, and a mask (with an EN143 P2 filter) while performing the scratch test and to wash your hands afterwards.

To see exactly how to do the scratch test, you can check out the video below from WaterSafe.

What to do if you suspect you have lead water pipes

What to do if you suspect you have lead water pipes

If you suspect that you have lead pipes, then it’s important to get in touch with your water supplier who can take a sample of your water to test its lead levels.

Many water samples that are taken to check lead levels will return a result that complies with the legal limit of lead (10mcg per litre) and is therefore unlikely to cause harm – in which case, you may be reassured that no action needs to be taken.

However, in the event that the lead in your water is greater than the legal limit, your water company or local authority should offer you advice on getting your pipes replaced and on how to reduce or control lead levels in the meantime.

Short-term solutions to reduce lead in your water could include things like using cold tap water for drinking and cooking only (as hot tap water will dissolve more lead). You can also run the tap for two minutes before drinking or cooking with water to clear any that’s been sitting in your lead pipework for long periods of time (note boiling your water can sterilise it but won’t remove lead).

Thames Water suggests collecting the water you flush and using it to wash your car or water your plants.

It’s possible that you may also be advised to stop drinking your tap water until the exact source of the lead can be confirmed, and steps can be taken to resolve the problem.

Who is responsible for replacing lead water pipes?

Homeowners and businesses are responsible for replacing lead pipes on their property. This includes internal pipes and the underground supply pipe, which connects your home or business to the public water main.

Therefore, for those living (or working) in a rented property, it’s important to let your landlord or employer know if you suspect or know that water pipes are made of lead so they can arrange for them to be replaced.

Many water suppliers have schemes in place to help residents in their water network replace pipes as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Whether you use this scheme or not or get your pipes replaced privately (in which case, it’s recommended that you employ a fully qualified plumber), it’s still important to contact your water supplier, as there may be other lead pipework in the network (beyond the boundary of your home and garden) that needs replacing.

WaterSafe and other water companies advise that lead pipes should be replaced with copper or plastic pipes that have been approved for use with drinking water.

What to do if you think you’ve been exposed to lead

If you think you have been exposed to lead over a period of time, then you may experience some of the symptoms mentioned in this article.

However, it’s important to note that not everyone who has lead poisoning looks or feels unwell.

Therefore, if you’re concerned, it’s best to contact your doctor, who can do a blood test to check for lead.

A note on lead paint

In the same way that older homes may have lead water pipes still in place, homes that were built and decorated before the 1960s and still have original paintwork may contain lead.

If you have an older home and you’re thinking about redecorating or you’re concerned that your paintwork might contain lead, then it’s important to take steps to make your home as safe as possible.

The government website has some helpful advice on how to remove lead paintwork while minimising the risk to you and your family.

Final thoughts…

The idea of having lead pipes in your home may seem daunting – especially now so much is known about the health risks.

However, if you’re unsure what your water pipes are made of, then the best thing you can do to look after your health and the health of your family is to find out.

This will usually only be applicable to homes built before 1970, after which lead pipes were banned.

If you suspect that your pipes are made of lead or you feel unsure, then it’s important to get in touch with your water supplier who will be able to investigate further.

The government website also has some more general water quality information and advice on how to report problems with your water or water company should you need it.