Lead pipes

Lead is a common substance. It can come from a variety of sources, including vehicle exhausts, and old paintwork, and may be present in air, food, soil or water.

How does lead get into drinking water?

Water leaving the Cambridge Water treatment works and travelling along our network of pipes is effectively lead-free.

Where lead is found in tap water it usually comes from lead pipework leading to or supplying the property.

Until the 1960s lead was the preferred material for pipework, hence the word plumbing from the Latin for lead - plumbum. Lead was also used in the manufacture of solder to join the pipes. In the 1960s lead was found to be harmful if ingested in large quantities and its use has ceased.

Lead can leach into the water if the water has been allowed to stand in lead pipes. The softness or hardness of the water, the acidity and the temperature can all affect the amount of lead leaching into the water.

Is lead harmful?

Excessive exposure to lead can be harmful to humans. Young children, and unborn babies are particularly vulnerable and studies have shown lead may have some effect on their mental development. It may also be a factor in behavioural problems.

Cambridge Water treats the water supplied with orthophosphoric acid to reduce the amount of lead leaching from lead pipes.

How do I know if there are lead pipes in my home?lead pipe

If your property was built:

1) Before 1963 it may have lead pipes

2) After 1963 it is unlikely to have lead pipes.

If your property has been modernised since the early 1960s and all of its pipework replaced, there should be no lead pipework on your property.

If you are unsure, you can make a simple check:

1) Look at the pipework inside your property, such as the pipes leading to the kitchen tap or the pipe which leads to your internal stop-tap (usually under the kitchen sink)

2) Unpainted lead pipes are dull grey and soft. If you scrape the surface gently with a knife  or coin you will see the shiny, silver-coloured metal beneath. As a guide other pipe materials have the following appearances:

  1. Copper - bright or dull orange in colour, and hard
  2. Iron - dark, very hard and may be rusty
  3. Plastic - may be grey, blue or black

3) To identify whether you have lead pipes supplying your property open the stop tap chamber outside your property and examine the pipe which leads from the stop tap back to your property to see if it has the lead appearance described above.

How can I find out if there is lead in my drinking water?

If your property does have lead pipes, your drinking water may sometimes contain high levels of lead. If you are concerned about the level of lead in your supply please contact Cambridge Water or 01223 706050. We will send an inspector to determine the material your supply pipe is made from and take a water sample for analysis if appropriate.

The results will be sent to you after the analysis.

Of all the samples we carry out every year for lead compliance the likelihood of failing the standard is less than one per cent.

What can I do to reduce lead levels?

If lead pipes are causing high lead levels in your drinking water you can take some simple short-term precautions:

1) Do not drink water that has been standing in the pipes for long periods, for example, overnight, or if the supply has not been used for several hours

2) In these circumstances draw off a washing up bowl of water from the kitchen tap to clear the water, that has been standing in the pipes. This need not be wasted but can be used on the garden or for something other than drinking or cooking. You can now use water from the kitchen tap as usual.

3) Ensure you only use cold water for cooking or drinking purposes, as hot water dissolves more lead than cold water

Who owns what pipes?

Pipes under the road or pavements up to the boundary of your property are the responsibility of Cambridge Water. In the majority of cases these pipes are not lead. The pipe from the boundary of your property to the internal plumbing is the responsibility of the property owner.

All the plumbing inside your property is the responsibility of the property owner.

If you do have any lead pipework between the stop tap outside your property and your kitchen tap, the best solution is to replace it with copper or plastic pipework.

At Cambridge Water we are committed to maintaining the quality of the water supplied to our customers. To help reduce lead in the water we are able to offer the following water quality initiative:

We will replace free of charge our part of the lead service pipe if:

1) A sample exceeds a concentration of 10ug/l for lead or

2) You have replaced your part of the service pipe up to the first draw off tap (some conditions may apply) and request that we replace our part of the service pipe, regardless of the levels of lead in your drinking water

For more information download our lead pipe replacement leaflet here.

Where can I get more advice?

If you are still unsure about what lead pipes are like, or would like further information about lead in the water supply, call 01223 706050 and we will be happy to help you.

Your Environmental Health Officer can also give advice.

Qualified plumbers registered with the Institute of Plumbing can assist with pipe replacement. If you would like details of a suitable plumber, please click here.

The Drinking Water Inspectorate has also published an information leaflet on lead which you can access here.