Lead has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent weeks. High levels of lead in some drinking water supplies have raised concerns about the risks of human health, and households are demanding answers as to who will pick up the tab to pay for improvements to water supplies. Lead is a neurotoxin that accumulates in soft tissues and the bones. Excessive high levels of exposure can damage the nervous system and cause brain damage to the brain. People are right to express concern about levels of lead in drinking water but it is important to put the risks in perspective. The amount of lead that we are exposed to has diminished significantly over recent years. Lead was once added to petrol and to paint but this is no longer permitted. The maximum amount of lead permitted in our water was reduced to ten microgrammes per litre from the first of January 2014, down from a previous level of twenty-five microgrammes per litre.
For most families the risks of excessive lead exposure comes from the ingestion of food, dirt and dust, but a significant number of household water supplies with high lead levels have been detected. This is happening because old lead pipework still remains in some of the pipes that distribute drinking water into and inside our homes. The recent reports from Irish Water have shown us that there are many streets around our capital where these levels are being exceeded. This can be a particular risk for younger children who may be fed milk formula from these drinking water supplies. Flushing the water supply by turning on a cold taps for a few seconds before taking water can reduce lead levels, but in some instances parents may wish to use bottled water to ensure lower lead levels. Boiling water is not recommended as it can actually increase lead levels. The only real solution to lead contamination is to remove lead pipes and this can be costly. Figures of over €4,000 have been mentioned for replacing pipe supplies, but in most instances the costs should be far below this. For those living in areas where high lead levels have been detected a plumber can advise on the costs of replacing any contaminated pipework.
It is important to put the risks from lead in context. The Irish Environmental Protection Agency publishes bi-annual reports on water quality in Ireland and regularly raises concerns about the bacterium Escherichia coli (E. Coli) as well as the organism Cryptosporidium and Trihalomethanes which are a by-product of disinfection. There have been significant health concerns around Cryptosporidium in water supplies in Galway City, Carlow and Roscommon in recent times. Pesticides in water supplies are also a matter of concern, and the addition of fluoride has been a matter of some controversy. Private wells are at risk of contamination from septic tanks and their percolation areas. The good news is that contamination levels of most municipal supplies has reduced significantly in recent years due to investment in the water supply and treatment systems. Much of the funding for this has been significantly grant-aided by European funds. The 1998 European Union Drinking Water Directive compels the Irish Government to protect human health from adverse effects of any contamination of water intended for human consumption by ensuring that it is wholesome and clean.
The only sustainable solution to lead contamination is to replace any lead or lead soldered pipework. The responsibility for achieving is now a political hot potato for the current government and Irish Water, but it is clear that it will take many years to fully remove lead from the Irish water supply network. Irish Water must be more transparent about releasing reports that they have regarding drinking water quality if they are to gain public confidence. Many regard this as an uphill task. Given the costs of replacing pipework it is crucial that a grant system to help householders remove lead pipes is up and running as quickly as possible. Those living on streets where high lead levels have been detected are right to demand urgent action. Parents are right to be concerned.
As the current Government enters its last few months the Minister for the Environment will be carefully watched to see if he can put in place a clear and fair solution to tackle this public health challenge. It is no easy task, but it must be done.
Ciarán Cuffe is a Green Party City Councillor, and lectures in planning at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Bolton Street.
First published in Dublin Gazette, 18th June 2015