LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News Volume 13 Number 3, May 2013, ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News (ISSN 1440-0561)
The Journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.
Editorial Team: Elizabeth O’Brien, Zac Gethin-Damon, Hitesh Lohani and Shristi Lohani

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Lead in Drinking Rainwater and What to Do with It

-By Jessica Onie, Chemistry Student (University of New South Wales) and Intern, The LEAD Group Inc. Edited by Ian Smith, BSc BE MBA, volunteer Editor, The LEAD Group Inc. Australia

The Lead Problem in Drinking Water from Rainwater Tanks in Australia:

Lead - An Overview

Lead has been used in a vast range of products since as early as 3000 BC. These days, lead is primarily used in roofing, gutters, flashing, paint, batteries and fuel. Lead’s harmful effects towards the biological system are not a recent discovery, notorious for being a neurotoxin lead also affects the bones, development, and fertility, raises blood pressure and causes premature aging. Lead is too often overlooked at the household level leading to cases of avoidable lead poisoning. If you don’t want your children with learning disabilities or a lowered IQ, or if you do not intend to risk forthcoming strokes or heart attacks, ensure that your family is not ingesting or inhaling excessive amounts of lead at home.

Our concern is that lead still has its continuing, unnoticed presence in rainwater tanks

The Alarming Studies

A Monash University study (Magyar et al, 2008) revealed excessive amounts of lead in 33% of rainwater tanks in metropolitan Melbourne

A Griffith University study (Huston, 2009) revealed that 10-20% of rainwater tanks across Brisbane contained lead levels higher than 0.01 mg/L, the recommended maximum safe level of lead in water by the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWG)  The study goes on to suggest that unless you live in a town that has a lot of heavy industry, the main sources of this lead are likely to be your roof top. (Anna Salleh 2009)

A University of Technology, Sydney study (Kus, 2010  LID: 16803 –  revealed that five out of eleven rainwater tanks in metropolitan Sydney contained lead levels higher than the recommended ADWG levels

What are the implications of these studies??

Taking the figures on rainwater used as drinking water in capital cities from the 2010 census (ABS 2010a), the above studies would suggest that in Metropolitan NSW, Vic and Qld alone there are a total of 18, 692 households where rainwater with excessive amounts of lead is used as drinking water. If we are to draw on the national average of 2.6 people per household (ABS 2010b), this would mean that there are 37, 384 people who are likely to have elevated blood levels.

The study highlights the fact that it is critical that people who are currently sourcing their drinking water from rainwater tanks (or are planning to) should be more aware of how to avoid the harmful effects of lead to our organs, bones, nervous system, and reproductive system.  The issue with rainwater tanks is that as an owner you are entirely responsible to monitor and maintain water quality within the tanks – water that you may be drinking. The Australian Government has no duty to instruct or advice your employment or maintenance of rainwater tanks, so it’s all entirely up to you.

If you use your rainwater tanks for drinking, it is advisable to monitor its quality and lead content to avoid its harmful effects. If there is presence of lead in your rainwater tanks, this then it will build up in the bloodstream until dangerous levels. Children and unborn babies who more readily absorb the lead into the bloodstream are the most vulnerable to and most detrimentally affected by lead poisoning.  In the long term, lead poisoning can result in learning difficulties, mental and physical disabilities, crime, and ultimately a lower standard of living, both by lowered income and increased crime rates.

What Do I Need to Do?

Reading this fact sheet, you are presumably looking for precautions and advice regarding rainwater tanks – what can I do? Rainwater tanks can be perfectly safe but how do you and how will you know if your household is or will be one of the four households with excess lead its tanks? There are three stages of prevention, depending on your circumstances:

Primary Prevention – I plan to source my drinking water from a rainwater tank, what should I be concerned of?

Secondary Prevention – I am using a rainwater tank for drinking at home, what should I do?

Tertiary Prevention – I have discovered that my rainwater tank is lead contaminated, how do I go by this?

According to a 2007 government fact sheet on rainwater tanks and water maintenance (here), quality of water is dependent on how you maintain your tank and catchment.

Primary Prevention – Prior to Purchase

Before purchasing your tank, ensure that the tank is made specifically for rainwater collection for drinking.  Make sure you use high quality plastic pipes and fittings. It is ideal to avoid metal roofs, or roofs with lead flashing as corrosion and leaching can lead to poisoning. Do not install a rainwater tank if your catchment area, generally your roof, contains lead-based paints or lead flashing. Replace any lead-flashing with non-lead flashing, or contact a paint company for a paint product that will protect the water from lead leaching from your roof or from any other sources of contamination. 

Contaminants tend to settle at the base of the tank. Ensure that you have a diverter to discard the first 30mm of catchment. The new tank should also be washed before use.

Note that Australia does not have a regulation for domestic rainwater treatment or distribution.

Secondary Prevention – Determine Presence of Contamination

The Australian Building Code (2004) instructs that buildings with a rainwater tank added at the same time as the house is built must not be constructed with lead flashing. However there are no requirements regarding lead-flashing in buildings built pre-2004 and in houses with rainwater tanks installed after its construction.

If you are drinking from a rainwater tank, it is advisable to test your tank for lead contamination. The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (established by National Health and Medical Research Council) suggests a maximum allowed limit of 10 μg/L.

The LEAD Group provides a lead-testing kit and service (physical kit, lab analysis, and results interpretation). Visit here for more information.

Check your house for presence of lead flashing; remove it as soon as possible to allow minimal lead content in rainwater tanks. Test your rainwater tank for lead contamination, and do not drink water with unsafe levels of lead.

Tertiary Prevention – Post-Contamination Action, and Source Identification

If you find that your rainwater tank has unsafe levels of lead, stop drinking from the tank. Contact your doctor to get a lead blood test and find all the possible sources for the contamination - contact the Global Lead Advice and Support Service (GLASS) at 1800 626 086 for advice

Detailed Information on Hazards, Tank Materials, and Preventative Measures:

http://www.nphp.gov.au/enhealth/council/pubs/documents/rainwater_tanks.pdf

www.lead.org.au/fs/tankwater.pdf.

Conclusions:

It is your responsibility to ensure that your rainwater tanks are lead-safe. Test your water, find your sources of lead, and what kind of tanks to avoid, Guidance on use of rainwater tanks, EnHealth Council, © Australian Government 2004.

Find the organisations responsible for your contaminated tank, and inform them of the issue. Stop purchasing items – directly and indirectly - from companies that allow lead to get in to drinking water.

Find organisations that can aid in any of the three prevention types. Information and relevant services can be found on www.lead.org.au or by contacting The LEAD Group directly at 1800 626 086 (freecall)

Make sure your water is healthy. It’s easily controllable - and not too late, we can help.

Further Reading:

Anna Salleh (2009) Roofs can boost rainwater lead levels in ABC Science, Tuesday, 3 March 2009 http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2009/03/03/2502158.htm

Australian Bureau of Statistcs (ABS) (2010a) Environmental issues: Water Use and conservation Australia  MAR 2010

Australian Bureau of Statistcs (ABS) (2010b) Households and Families in Year Book 2010, http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/916F96F929978825CA25773700169C65

ABS (2012), More Australians using rainwater tanks, Australian Bureau of Statistics, 19 November 2010

DEKS (2011) DEKS Think-tank finds around 10 to 20% of tanks recorded lead levels above that recommended in the Australian drinking water guidelines. http://www.deks.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/think-tank-flyer.pdf

Department of the Environment and Heritage (2009), Lead Alert Facts: Lead and Your Health, Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Department of the Environment and Heritage, 19 Jan 2012, 

National Toxics Network (14th March 2007) Esperance Residents Fear High Lead Levels in their Air and Drinking Water, The LEAD Group Inc Media Release, 19 Jan 2012, http://www.lead.org.au/mr/20071403NTN.html

Gibson, N. (2008), What to Do if You Have Too Much Lead in Your Tankwater, The LEAD Group Inc, National Public Health Partnership, 20 Jan 2012, www.lead.org.au/fs/tankwater.pdf

Karras, T. (1997), Lead in Household Drinking Water, The LEAD Group Inc, 19 Jan 2012.

Kus, B. et. al (2010), Water quality characterisation of rainwater in tanks at different times and locations, UTS Faculty of Engineering & Information Technology, http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/research/handle/10453/13626?show=full

Magyar, M. I., Mitchell, V. G., Ladson, A. R., Diaper, C. (2008), Lead and other heavy metals: common contaminants of rainwater tanks in Melbourne, Monash University/CSIRO, Accessed 19 Jan 2012 s with publication dates, http://www.csiro.au/files/files/pk7r.pdf 

NHMRC, NRMMC (2011) Australian Drinking Water Guidelines Paper 6 National Water Quality Management Strategy, National Health and Medical Research Council, National Resource Management Ministerial Council, Commonwealth of Australia, 19 Jan 2012, 

NSW Ministry of Health (2007) Rainwater Tanks, New South Wales Ministry of Health, 20 Jan 2012, 

NPHP (2005), Guidance on Use of Rainwater Tanks, National Public Health Partnership, 27 Jan 2012, 

Parkinson, P. (2000) Lead In Drinking Water In Australia, The LEAD Group Inc, 19 Jan 2012, 

R. Huston, Y.C. Chan, H. Chapman, T. Gardner, G. Shawe., (2012) Source apportionment of heavy metals and ionic contaminants in rainwater tanks in a subtropical urban area in Australia in Water Research Journal,  Volume 46, Issue 4, 15 March 2012   

Phillips, N. (2010), Rainwater users warned of lead risk in Sydney Morning Herald, 10th of April 2010, 

Tufvesson, A. (2009), Rainwater tank pollution: As rainwater tanks become increasingly popular, it begs the question: do they harbour elevated lead levels that are dangerous to public health? In World Plumbing Info 19th November 2009, 

Western Australian Department of Health Environmental Health Service (2009) Is the Water in Your Rainwater Tank Safe to Drink? In Environmental Health Guide, 

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Last Updated 04 June 2013
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