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Exclusive: UK water companies have failed to replace three million toxic lead pipes

Exposure to lead over time, even at lower levels, can cause damage to the brain and nervous system in children.

By Samir Jeraj

As the government considers nationalising Thames Water, a New Statesman Spotlight investigation reveals that UK water companies are yet to replace more than three million toxic lead pipes in their networks.

According to the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) requests filed by Spotlight, in the past five years just 130,308 lead pipes have been replaced by water companies. The length of lead pipes varies depends on the distance of the home to the mains, but the standard diameter is 25 millimetres. The three million figure is almost certainly an underestimate, with seven companies unable to provide a figure on the amount of outstanding lead in their systems.

Any amount of lead is toxic. The recommended maximum allowable amount in UK water is 10 micrograms a litre, which has been the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance since 1993. The US lowered the limit to zero in recognition that there is no safe level of lead to humans.

Where companies have provided the information, there is a wide variation in scale and cost. Wessex Water said it cost between £1,000 and £3,000 to replace a pipe. It has replaced 6,831 in the past five years. Portsmouth Water, a small company covering an area surrounding the city of that name, has spent £2.5m on replacing 2,256 lead pipes over the past five years, with an estimated 80,000 still to be replaced. This works out at £1,099 per pipe.

Thames Water, which covers a much larger area of England, has spent £82.7m replacing 89,465 lead pipes, but does not have a figure for the amount of pipes still to go. Yorkshire Water has the largest amount of lead in its network, 1,264,067 pipes (based on a 2012 study), but has only replaced 6,608 in the past five years at a cost of £13.5m.

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In total, the seven water companies who provided data on costs had spent £111.1m replacing 130,308 pipes, working out at £852 per pipe on average. That also means only 4 per cent have been changed.

Exposure to lead over time, even at lower levels, has health impacts. The WHO says children can be affected at 3.5 micrograms per litre, but the impacts are hard to quantify or differentiate from other factors – nor is the substance screened for. The US Center for Disease Control says lead exposure can cause damage to the brain and nervous system in children, along with slowed growth and development, and problems with learning, speech and hearing. Some studies have associated lead exposure with poor performance in school and violent behaviour.

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“There’s no safe amount of lead exposure,” said Dr Tristan Sturm, senior lecturer in geography at Queen’s University Belfast. “That’s often a misconception among public health that if you just lower something enough, it’ll be safe. That’s not true.”

The scale and cost of removing lead from the water system is a challenge for water companies and policymakers. The metal is so associated with the UK’s water supply that the trade of installing and repairing it – plumbing – was named after the Latin for lead, plumbum. Lead piping was banned in buildings in 1969, lead paint in 1992, and leaded petrol in 1999.

In the UK, most of the lead piping being replaced by water companies is the communication (or “comms”) piping, which they own and which takes drinking water from the mains up to your property boundary. The “supply” piping that takes water from the comms pipe on your street to your home (and inside your home) is the responsibility of the property owner.

“In the UK we know that there’s roughly 25 per cent of UK communication pipes that are lead,” said Sturm. “And 34 per cent of homes have some lead pipe pipes in their network.”

[See also: Who killed Thames Water?]

Sturm is leading a project looking at lead exposure in Belfast. One of his findings is that when a comms pipe is replaced, the amount of lead in water can double due to the disturbance. He told me there is little public information about this during replacement schemes, and that water companies should be warning people. He believes water companies and the government have a political and ethical responsibility to fix the problem. “They’re the ones who would have been [historically] setting down policies about what kind of pipes could be laid,” he explained. One solution from the Republic of Ireland is a scheme to provide grants of up to €5,000 to property owners to replace the lead in their homes. Sturm is aware of only two similar schemes in the UK, in the Argyll and Bute area of western Scotland and in Sussex.

“It’s a historic legacy issue and there isn’t a strong driver to do anything at the moment,” said Ann Bunting, principal inspector at the Drinking Water Inspectorate. That is largely because companies meet the 10 micrograms a litre standard set by the law. The inspectorate modelled the costs and benefits of removing lead and reducing the standard to 5 micrograms, and to zero. The conclusion was that such a change would be very expensive, but that it could be economically justified in high-risk areas if all the piping (up to the tap) was replaced.

One of the ways that lead exposure is being mitigated in the medium term, Bunting explained, is by adding orthophosphate to the water, which reduces lead levels. However, this is not a long-term solution as it is a “finite resource” with supply chain issues, she admitted.

Some water companies are running trials on lead replacement to find out what process works best and is the most cost-effective. Southern Water is currently replacing 2,900 lead pipes in Deal, Kent, which is a “lead hotspot” according to the company. The scheme is replacing mains and communications pipes, plus supply pipes that contain lead for free. Natalie Elphicke, the MP for Deal, said, “Delivering upgrades to Deal's historic water and sewage systems is one of my key priorities.”

She added that “record investment” from Southern Water in two projects in the town “will tackle long-standing flooding issues as well as reducing the use of storm overflows. Old lead pipes are also now being upgraded.”

A spokesperson for Water UK, which represents water companies said, “Drinking water in the UK is tightly regulated with standards set independently by the Drinking Water Inspectorate. Sampling shows that these standards are met in 99.9 per cent of cases, including for lead.”

The organisation added that, “Individual company approaches are closely monitored by the regulator, and they are held to account for delivering them.” It said this includes replacing lead piping in their networks and actions to reduce the lead content at the tap.

The millions of lead pipes still present in our water system is just one more infrastructure problem that the UK is struggling to fix, but so too is Europe and the US. To make real change would require policymakers to lower the acceptable level of lead and invest in newer and better water infrastructure.

“It’s a difficult, expensive legacy issue,” said Bunting. “The current situation with the orthophosphate dosing should reassure consumers, but if people have lead pipes then the best thing to do is to get in touch with their water company and maybe get a test, and there may be some help in the cost of removing their side.”

Sturm, meanwhile, is resolute: “We’ve been having this conversation in the United States for 12 years now and we haven’t started having it in the UK at all.”

[See also: Sewage, spills and shortages: why UK water companies have failed]

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