Lead poisoning in plumbing
- Lead can enter drinking water when plumbing materials containing lead corrode
- The main sources of lead in drinking water are lead pipes, solder, water tanks and fittings
- Small amounts of lead consumed over time build up and can cause health problems
- Lead has not been used in water pipes since 1970
- The World Health Organisation (WHO) advises there is no safe level of lead for drinking water.
What is lead?
The name "plumber" originates from the Latin plumberium "worker of lead". Lead has been used throughout the ages due to its resistance to corrosion. The metal is poisonous when ingested or inhaled through dust, fume, or vapour. Lead is present in many products including leaded petrol, solder, pipes, lead paints, scrap metal, pottery glazes, antique toys and antique paintwork. It is illegal in the UK to use lead solder or pipes in systems used for drinking water. However, some older systems do still contain lead. Water flowing through these systems picks up lead particles which are then ingested.
How do people get lead poisoning and what happens?
Lead enters the bloodstream and accumulates in organs (especially the liver, kidneys, and brain), tissues, bones and teeth. Prolonged and repeated exposure increases the levels of lead in the body. It is absorbed very slowly and is a cumulative poisoning as it can take between weeks and years for the body to expel lead after exposure.
People who work with lead should be aware that they can bring lead dust into their homes on their clothes.
Lead poisoning in children
Children absorb lead more easily than adults so are at a greater risk. Low level lead poisoning can be hard to spot as symptoms are not always immediately obvious. Symptoms of those exposed to higher levels of lead can include:
- Blue line around the gums
- Abdominal pain and cramps
- Vomiting and diarrhoea
- Hearing problems
- Slow growth
- Foot and wrist drop
- Lack of physical co-ordination
Lead poisoning causes permanent brain damage, damage to the central nervous system, a drop in IQ, learning disabilities and behavioural problems.
Lead poisoning in adults
Along with the above symptoms, in adults, lead poisoning can also cause infertility, hearing difficulties, kidney disease, kidney failure, permanent brain damage and damage to the central nervous system. In women, lead poisoning can cause stillbirth, miscarriage, premature birth, and foetal development problems.
Treatment of both adults and children involves removing the source of the lead. In low level lead poisoning this can be all that is needed for the patient to start to recover. In cases with a higher exposure to lead, chelation drugs are used to help the body remove it. Lead poisoning can cause permanent damage to the brain, vital organs, central nervous systems and can be fatal.
It you suspect lead poisoning, you must contact your doctor immediately and tell them your suspicions.
Who is at risk of lead poisoning?
People who work with lead are at a higher risk of poisoning, as are children and pregnant women. Plumbers and those in the construction industry should take care not to ingest or inhale lead particles. People with old plumbing systems should ensure that lead has not been used in any part which comes into contact with drinking water.
Water can be easily tested for traces of lead. Always wash clothes covered in lead dust separately. Be aware that lead based paints in older properties are a source of lead poisoning – especially in children - always take great care and get expert advice when dealing with lead-based paints.
If you live in a house built pre-1970 and the pipework has never been replaced, you may have lead pipes in your home. Look in or behind kitchen cupboards or even in other places such as the cupboard under the stairs, to find any pipes that lead to the kitchen taps. Lead is dull grey in colour. If you find any pipes you suspect are lead, you can test them by scraping the surface gently with a knife, lead is a soft metal and a shiny, silver coloured surface should be exposed.
If you live in an area with soft water and have lead pipes, you can be at a higher risk of poisoning. In hard water areas, limescale builds up inside the pipes and lines them to form a barrier between the pipe and the water. Water companies regularly take samples of water supplied to properties, and you can find out if the water supplied to your house contains high levels of lead.
The water company can replace lead pipes at your request that lie under its responsibility. However, you are responsible for all pipes on your land - if the lead pipes are on your property it is up to you to replace them.
If you have a high lead content in your water you should:
- Use a lead-removing filter for drinking water
- Refrain from drinking water that has been left standing in the pipes for more than a few hours. Draw off a washing-up bowl full of water to clear out the water per 40 metres of pipework
- Replace any lead pipework between the stop valve between the outside of your home to your kitchen tap
- Ask your water company to replace its service pipe (if made of lead) between the water main in the street and the stop valve
- Always drink from taps in the kitchen - don't drink from bathroom taps
- If you do remove a lead pipe make sure it was not used as an earth for electricity in your home.
Use of lead solder
The use of lead solder for jointing copper pipes has been prohibited in plumbing systems which supply water for drinking, cooking or bathing under the Water Fittings Regulations and Byelaws since 1987. Solder containing lead can only be used on water installations not used for drinking, such as closed circuit central heating systems.
Lead in the workplace
Employers have a duty by law to protect employees from the dangers of lead poisoning. Employers must conduct a risk assessment of their employee's exposure to lead and implement precautions to protect their workers’ health if there is a "significant" risk present. These precautions and preventative measures include:
- Putting in place systems of work and controls e.g. extraction ventilation equipment which must be kept in good working order
- Information on the health risks associated with lead
- Up-to-date information on precautions to take
- Training on control methods and protective equipment
- Washing and changing facilities
- Lead free areas for eating and drinking.
Your employer should tell you if your risk is "significant". If it is, your employer must:
- Provide you with protective clothing
- Measure the amount of lead in the air you are exposed to AND tell you the results
- Issue you with respiratory protective equipment if the amount of lead in the air is above the occupational exposure limit
- Measure the level of lead in your body through a blood test taken by a doctor/nurse at your place of work. You MUST be told your test results.
If you are pregnant, you should not work anywhere where there is a significant risk of exposure to lead.
Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE)
If you are working where lead is present, you should be use RPE.
RPE includes face masks, hoods and helmets. The type of respirator used will depend on the amount of lead present and the type of job. Make sure you use suitable equipment for that any particular job.
Your employer (or yourself if self-employed) must train you how to fit, clean, maintain and use RPE properly, and keep this training up to date with refresher courses. Tests need to be carried out to make sure that face masks fit properly (it is an employer’s duty to make sure you have a face fit test before using any kind of respirator) as if you have a beard (even stubble), wear glasses or have sideburns, certain types of respirators may not fit adequately.
How can I protect myself when working with lead?
To protect yourself from lead poisoning you should:
- Have information and training on working safely with lead
- Know what to do in an emergency
- Know how to make full use of all control measures, systems of work and equipment provided by your employer
- Keep your immediate work area as clean and tidy as possible
- Clear up and dispose of any lead waste at the end of each day or shift
- Don't take home any protective clothing or protective footwear for washing or cleaning
- Wear protective clothing and respiratory equipment when you need it and return it to the proper place when your work is completed
- Report any damaged or defective ventilation plant or protective equipment
- Only eat and drink in places free from lead contamination
- Wash your hands and face, and scrub your nails before eating or drinking
- If possible, wash or shower and change your clothes before you go home
- Keep medical appointments with the doctor where you work.
Lead in the workplace guidance
The Health and Safety Executive provides further guidance about working safely with lead.HSE Lead Guidance
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