Dangerous levels of lead found in UK schools tap water

Lead is still being found at levels above the UK standard of 10 micrograms per litre in UK schools tap water, an investigation has revealed.

In 59 tap water tests carried out at around 30 schools over the last decade, the toxic heavy metal lead has been found at or above the 10 micrograms per litre UK drinking water standard, i News has found after submitting data requests under the Environmental Information Regulations. 

The most recent incident, according to the newspaper, was at a school in Edinburgh in May this year. 

In hundreds of tests, lead was found in drinking water at schools, although at levels below 5 micrograms per litre. In 95 tests carried out at around 50 schools, lead was found above 5 micrograms per litre. 

Lead can build up in the body if consumed, and can cause permanent health impacts in children, particularly on the development of the brain and nervous system according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Under WHO guidance, there is “no level of exposure to lead that is known to be without harmful effects”.

Unicef has previously estimated that 213,702 children in the UK could be living with lead poisoning at blood levels of over 5 micrograms per litre - the level at which both the WHO and the US suggest regional intervention is required. A further 29,036 children estimated to have lead found in their blood at levels of over 10 micrograms per litre

A ban on lead pipes being used in buildings came into effect in 1970, however according to Water UK there are around 9.5 million lead pipes serving homes in the UK. According to the i Paper there is no central database of where these pipes can be found.

Founder of the Lead Exposure and Poisoning Prevention Alliance (LEAPP) Tim Pye told ENDS: “There’s a very big story here in the amount of lead that is in so many different things”.

He noted how, despite the ban on lead pipes, the UK has one of the oldest housing stocks in Europe, making this a problem that still afflicts many UK buildings. 

He also raised concerns that although Europe has put a date on tightening its control of lead in drinking water, the UK has not yet indicated it is going down the same route despite a Drinking Water Inspectorate report published in 2021 recommending that:

“Based on available scientific and practitioner evidence, it is concluded that water companies in England and Wales will be required to replace lead service pipes to guarantee compliance with a lower regulatory standard for lead at the consumer tap of 5 µg/l or lower.” 

The European Chemicals Agency has said that the maximum limit for lead in drinking water will decrease in Europe from 10 μg/l to 5 μg/l by January 2036.

The EU is also looking at a total phase out of lead in all new products coming onto the market place, with ECHA recommending adding lead to the Authorisation List (REACH Annex XIV) in April 2023 – an application currently being reviewed by the European Commission.

A Water UK spokesperson told ENDS: “Customers in the UK enjoy some of the best drinking water in the world with more than 99% passing stringent water quality tests. 

“Where lead is suspected, water companies will work closely with building owners to assess the risk and, if necessary, support them to replace any lead piping.”