Environment: Lead pipe poison threat to poor

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The Independent Online
Water companies will have to spend pounds 2bn replacing lead pipes in order to comply with a new European law on safe drinking water. But, says Environment Correspondent Nicholas Schoon, hundreds of thousands of people, many of them on low incomes, could still end up with water containing too much lead.

European environment ministers agreed this week to enforce a much tougher standard for lead in drinking water. The heavy metal has long been known to be a potent poison for brains and nerves, stunting the mental development of children at even low concentrations.

The current standard, under the old drinking water directive, is 50 micrograms of lead per litre. The new one, part of a revised directive, is set at 10mg, to be achieved across the union within 15 years. An interim standard of 25mg will have to be hit within five years.

It is estimated that about 8 million homes - a third of all in Britain - receive water with lead above this new standard, which brings Europe into line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation. That is because the homes have lead piping, and are in soft water areas where the acidity dissolves out the metal.

The water industry has already begun replacing lead piping that connects the mains to individual buildings, and will spend pounds 2bn on the task. According to the Water Services Association, which represents nine of the big ten regional water companies, every lead connecting pipe will be replaced.

But a question remains over what happens to the lead piping inside homes which, in some areas, will also have to be removed in order for the new standard to be met. The water companies are quick to point out that this is not their responsibility but that of the householder.

It costs about pounds 400 to replace the most important section of piping, running from the boundary of the property to the kitchen tap. Yet the Government is not considering any extra grants for the work, beyond the very limited ones available for low income households through local councils.

People who ought to replace their own piping in order to meet the new standard will be given advice by the Government's Drinking Water Inspectorate, and the water companies. Many people, especially the elderly and less well off, will not want to pay for the work. But both the Government and the companies say there is nothing they can do, beyond giving the best advice. That includes letting the tap run for a minute in the morning to get rid of the high lead levels that have built up overnight.

Michael Meacher, the environment minister, said: "Householders will be offered advice to help them take an informed decision on options for action if they have lead pipes."