Of all the fears about pollutants reaching the water supply, concerns about lead remain a top priority.

Water boards have advice ready for residents, its use has been banned in water pipes and large-scale incidents such as in Flint, in the United States, have made families all too aware of the dangers of excessive levels of lead in drinking water.

How does lead get into drinking water?

Before the use of lead was banned across Europe in the 1970s it was used in pipes that supply drinking water to many houses.

Despite the use of lead in water pipes being outlawed for four decades, it remains a problem where older homes still get their water supply via a lead pipe - and where older kitchen fittings remain. Lead has also been found, at times, to be used wrongly to attach pipes. These are problems homeowners may not even be aware of.

Why is lead in drinking water harmful?

Consuming too much lead is a serious health risk and can cause lead poisoning. Health experts highlight the danger to be much greater for young children (under six years old) who absorb lead at a higher rate -and pregnant women.

Lead enters the body's vital organs, such as the heart, brain, and kidneys and is stored in the teeth and bones. The resulting health effects can include:

  • At high levels, it attacks the brain and central nervous system, possibly leading to coma and death
  • Brain development problems sometimes lead to a lower IQ, learning disabilities and slower growth
  • Behavioural problems
  • Anaemia
  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney damage
  • Problems with the immune system
  • Reproductive toxicity
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth or premature babies

Symptoms of lead poisoning

Children suffering from lead poisoning may experience abdominal pain, loss of appetite, fatigue, vomiting, headaches, hearing loss and learning difficulties. Adult symptoms display as muscle pain, abdominal pain, headache, fatigue, memory loss, hearing problems and tingling or numbness in hands and feet. It can also cause a blue line on gums.

Treatment for lead poisoning

Just as lead is slowly absorbed by the body, it is also slowly emitted. Anyone who fears they may have been exposed to excessive lead levels needs to seek the help of a doctor.

Where the levels of lead are low, identifying the source will help to reverse the problem. However, people suffering higher exposure levels will need treatment with specialist medication, known as Chelation therapy.

What can be done to protect against lead in drinking water?

While people living in hard water areas may be afforded some protection by the build-up of limescale in lead pipes, soft water areas are not - and often an additional chemical (orthophosphate) is added to water to take away the risk. It is a very real risk that particles of lead will find their way into drinking water in homes supplied by a lead pipe.

Ultimately families whose drinking water is supplied via lead pipes will want to take steps to replace the pipes. Check the pipe supplying your water - lead pipes are dull grey - and if unsure ask a plumber to look at it for you. The local water authority should also be able to provide information about the levels of lead found in drinking water for a particular area.

As boiling water does not reduce lead, the most affordable and immediate solution is to install a water filter to reduce heavy metal elements in your drinking water. Doulton water filters harness ceramic technology to filter out toxic metals from your drinking water. Using a water filter will help to reduce chemicals finding their way into drinking water and is ideal as a precautionary measure, even in houses with no link to lead being used.

So important is the control of lead in drinking water that the omission of orthophosphate to stop lead water pipes corroding eventually led to a state of emergency being declared in Flint, Michigan, in the United States in 2015. Thousands of people drank water containing excessive levels of lead.

Don't leave your health to chance

The amount of lead in drinking water should not be above 10 micrograms, although the World Health Organisation (WHO) says there is no safe level for lead in the human body.

Health is too important to take a risk with, check your water supply is bringing you the best quality drinking water, and use a water filter for added peace of mind.

Daniel Berko