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Lead in your tap water – and how to fix it

Lead in household tap fittings may be contaminating your tap water. With proposed industry codes flagging the issue with lead, now is an excellent time to review your tap fittings.

Lead is a natural metal that poses problems for humans, especially babies and children. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommends reducing the amount of lead in the environment to reduce the risk of harm from lead exposure (statement and information paper on the effects of lead).

As the quality of our public drinking water supply is regulated and continually tested, we know that we are relatively fortunate in Australia. Compared to other countries, lead piping was rarely used for drinking water service pipes. Lead soldering on old copper pipes does present another source of contamination here, but lead-based solder is no longer permitted.

The real lead contamination problem is with the water supply within private households, specifically where brass tap fittings contaminate drinking water. Testing of NSW samples found that 8 per cent of ‘ first draw drinking samples’ contained lead levels above the legal limit, according to a 2016 study.

Why are household brass tap fittings potentially harmful?

Brass plumbing fittings may contain lead, and water that sits in contact with it for long periods can absorb the lead. A hot water system is more likely to dissolve the metal into the water than a cold water system. Rainwater systems are also more likely to corrode the metal, as rainwater is slightly acidic.

What is the government doing about it?

In 2018 the standing committee enHealth recommended that “Every effort should be made to reduce exposure to lead in the environment, including lead that may be dissolving into drinking water from some plumbing products.”

While the enHealth Guidance Statement noted that actual results of lead contamination in humans were variable, it did warn that “Infants who drink formula prepared with lead-contaminated water may be at a higher risk because of the large volume of water they consume relative to their body size.”

The enHealth standing committee is engaging with Australian plumbing authorities to ensure plumbing products in contact with drinking water do not adversely affect water quality and people’s health. In Australia the installation of plumbing fittings is overseen by State and Territory plumbing regulatory agencies. Through the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB), a national approach has been established to determine the extent to which plumbing products may contribute to increased lead levels in drinking water.

In 2021 the ABCB flagged a raft of changes to the national construction code that will include the recommendation that lead levels allowed in brass fittings be slashed by 6 per cent to 0.25 per cent, bringing Australian standards in line with Canada and the USA.

Actions you can take

Right now:

  • Flush household taps with water for at least 30 seconds before using them for drinking or cooking
  • Flush the taps used for drinking or cooking for a longer time (2–3 minutes) after periods of non-use, such as on return from holidays
  • If there are bottle-fed babies who consume tap water in your household, you need to prioritise safety. Consider switching to filtered water and take further action to have your taps checked.

On-a-budget actions:

  • Use a filtering water pitcher that can help filter lead as a temporary solution
  • Regularly clean and replace the strainers in taps, where metals and other sediments can be deposited
  • Focus on changing the kitchen tap to a low-lead fitting – since this tap is the primary source of household drinking water.

Future-ready actions:

  • In consultation with your plumber, establish a plan and budget for permanent changes within the next five years – which is the projected timeframe for a transition to low-lead fittings – based on a review of your household tap fittings
  • Before making a purchase, research and source safe tap-fittings that are suitable for your home (such as WaterMark certified products)
  • And definitely don’t attempt disaster-DIY-plumbing with old soldering products that may contain lead
  • Install under-the-sink tap filters that can filter out lead.

Striking a balance

As part of your household response, discuss safety issues related to drinking from taps with older children. Provide filtered water where needed, but in principle, don’t discourage safely consumed fresh tap water.

Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy addressed concerns about lead toxicity saying, “We’ve got no evidence at all that anyone has become toxic from lead from drinking water.

“We know it’s a toxic chemical to humans; it’s just in this circumstance, it’s such a tiny amount that’s in drinking water that people are just saying if you want to be absolutely sure to reduce it, this is sound advice.”

The guidelines for homeowners provided by Sydney Water , which cover how plumbing can affect water quality, say that while plumbing products can contribute to increased levels of metals including lead, copper and nickel, by following good practice measures, “you can reduce your potential exposure to metals in plumbing,” and there is “no need to have your water tested for lead”.

Contact Curran Plumbing today to organise one of our qualified and experienced technicians to inspect your tap fittings.

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