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Lead Piping and the Environment

By: Helena Stratford - Updated: 28 Mar 2013 | comments*Discuss
Lead Lead Piping Environment Water

Until around about 1970, houses were traditionally serviced with lead pipes and water tanks. However, with the realisation that they could contaminate the drinking water supply they were phased out.

So what harm does lead do?

Lead In The Environment

Lead is a component of the Earth’s crust and as such is found naturally in the environment. Due to its malleability and low melting point, it has been used since ancient times for many different uses – one of which has been to carry water.

Today lead is used in petrol, batteries, paints, and paint strippers, glass manufacturing, and lead shot (for shooting) amongst other things.

Why Is Lead Bad?

Contamination by lead is one of the oldest forms of poisoning.

Prolonged and/or high exposure to lead has been shown to lead to blood poisoning, anaemia, damage to the central nervous system, cognitive disruption, kidney damage, abdominal pain, behavioural problems, and many other associated disorders.

It is particularly harmful to children – hence the phasing out of using lead in pencils – when over-exposure can be dangerous.

The History Of Lead Piping

Lead has been used to transport water form thousands of years.

The remains of lead water pipes dating back to Roman times have been found in Chester and in fact a segment of pipe found during excavations there bears the following inscription:

“This lead pipe was made when Vespasian and Titus were Consuls for the ninth and seventh times respectively and when Cnaeus Julius Agricola was Governor of Britain' Julius Agricola was Governor of Britain from A.D. 78-86.”

The usefulness of lead as a water carrier continued to be exploited throughout the ages, with well-established systems being set up below the streets of towns like Exeter and Hull in Medieval times to service individual households.

Lead In Recent Times

Lead was commonly used for water pipes and guttering right up until the 20th century when concerns about them as a health hazard caused them to be phased out from the 1950’s and banned from use in 1969. Lead solder as a means of sealing joints in pipes was also finally outlawed by 1987.

Lead In Pipes Today

Although lead pipes are not found in newer properties today, if you live in a house built before the 1970’s, it may be that you still have lead pipes or that there is a lead pipe connecting your home with the main supply.

If you think this is the case, it would be wise to think about replacing them. For information on how to do this, contact your local council or water supplier as grants and free help may well be available.

Identifying Lead Piping

Lead pipes are dark grey in colour, thicker than copper, plastic, or steel pipes and are easily scratched or dented. If you are unsure, then seek some help in identifying them.

Lead In Water

Even if you don’t have lead pipes supplying the water in your home, it is possible that the tap water may have been contaminated by any old lead supply pipes. If worried, then think about installing a water filter to ensure that your drinking water is pure.

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