Lead: a modern day problem in plumbed rainwater
Could the pump or ball valve be adding lead to our rainwater?
By a LEAD Group Kit Purchaser (Name withheld)
A few years ago we moved to a fast growing area of Australia. We were pleased to buy a house that was only a couple of years old. It had met our main criteria - needing no renovations. Having young children, asbestos and lead paint had been problems we wanted to avoid. We were really excited because our new home contained solar panels and four rainwater tanks that pumped what we thought was pure water into our house.
Not long after moving in we experienced gastroenteritis and I also noticed a bad odour when the water was stagnant for a couple of day. This smell cleared after running the water for a day. We installed an all-house filtration system downstream from the pump to prevent further episodes of gastroenteritis. The filters consisted of three cartridges, 1 micron, 5 micron, and odour (carbon) filter and a UV light to kill parasites, bacteria and viruses. In this region of the world, where a lot of people have grown up on rainwater, this was considered to go above and beyond what most tank owners do. However, we have young children and wanted to protect them.
Despite this the bad odour returned when the water was left standing and after another bout of diarrhoea we again read through the state’s health guidelines for rainwater tanks. It went into some detail about disinfection and desludging the tank every 2-3 years. We had our tanks desludged by a professional contractor (who told us that our tanks really didn’t appear to be very dirty). We then chlorinated the tanks. The odour problem was still not fixed when we went away for a weekend, but by now I was the only one who felt that the smell came from the water and that it was odd. The neighbours and other locals didn’t seem to notice the smell and the water tasted fine.
|Volcano Art Prize (VAP) Entry 2014. Title: Lead Needs My Attention for My Daughter's Sake. Lead-safety Message: Following this Skype session with Elizabeth O’Brien of The LEAD Group, I will use a LEAD Group kit to have soil, paint, dust and water analysed at the lab, then I’ll follow the kit report clean-up recommendations, so my daughter is never lead poisoned at our inner city terrace house. Materials: film of Skype session. Artist: Justin Lloyd. Screen Capture Editor: Rocky Yiru Huang. Watch the film at:
Not convinced, we had a plumber come out, he scratched his head, called and discussed the problem with colleagues, looked for cross-connections, however, felt this would be highly unlikely, and then to his credit suggested that the next time we went away we should get the water tested to see if there indeed was any problem. We had previously had the water tested for E.coli. The result had been good. However, we did as the plumber had suggested and after being away on a holiday took a sample for microbial collection. We also decided to check for heavy metals as there was a rusty colour to the water, which did eventually flush out.
We were devastated when the results came back, as the lead levels were very high, exceeding the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWG). We contacted the plumber who assured us that there should be no lead in our household plumbing. He came out and looked at each component of plumbing in particular the pump, and the copper pipe going into our house and explained that solder should not be allowed to contain lead. He was in fact shocked and really couldn’t explain the problem. He was surprised when it was suggested that the internal fittings themselves would have brass in them and might be contributing to the problem. We contacted the Environmental Health Officer at the the local council, who tried to help, but referred us to the state health authority. The State’s Local Environmental Health Officer trivialised the matter and was unable to help us. The Regional Environmental Health Officer suggested that my children have blood lead tests if we were concerned, and his advice was to flush each tap for three minutes before drinking it. I told him that we had all stopped drinking the water, anyway. I asked if anyone could help us identify the problem and he stated that unless my children had elevated blood lead levels (ie. met their criteria for lead poisoning) they wouldn’t do anything. I was prepared to pay someone to assess the problem as I had no idea of how to remedy the situation.
From plumbers to plumbing suppliers and at every level of government there seemed to be a lack of understanding of the serious nature of lead in drinking water and of what could be done to rectify the situation. When this degree of ignorance exists, it is not surprising that consumers are unaware that they should be taking some responsibility for the quality of their drinking water. Their fittings should meet Australian standards and be watermarked. Plumbers should only be supplying fittings that are marked for potable water. In this day and age, a heavy metal like lead should no longer be at levels that are detectable in drinking water (lead levels should be below 0.001mg/L - milligrams per litre) and they certainly should not be at the levels of the ADWG (0.010mg/L).
We started to feel really isolated and vulnerable and were left unable to drink our tainted water. It was then that I contacted Elizabeth O’Brien from The LEAD Group, who has helped immensely. She also suggested we all have blood lead levels. She went through the process of taking further samples to isolate the problem as well as providing literature and places to turn for further help. We also spoke to Paul Harvey from Macquarie University who again has been a wealth of knowledge on the subject of water chemistry and heavy metals.
With the systematic approach suggested by Elizabeth O’Brien and Paul Harvey and after testing the water with two independent National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) accredited labs, (using The LEAD Group Kits) we have isolated the problem to our pump complex. This consists of two ball valves and the pump, which when sitting for even short periods of time leaches heavy metals. These include nickel and lead in excess of the ADWG. We are continuing to have independent tests done to resolve the problem.
2016 VAP Entry. Title: SAL is a Lead Safe World Partner, Lead-safety Message: Sydney Analytical Laboratories (SAL) supports lead-safety in Australia by testing lead and other heavy metals in eggs, paint, water, dust, soil, toys, jewellery, etc and asbestos in building materials via LEAD Group Kits. Materials/Photographer: Photos from Sydney Analytical Laboratories, collaged using Word and Paint. http://volcanoartprize.com/portfolio-item/sal-is-a-lead-safe-world-partner/
It came as a surprise to a lot of people that the pump or a commonly used ball valve might contain lead. However, lead is always added to brass to make the brass easier to machine. A lot of wetted plumbing components contain brass. The content of lead varies in these components, (especially when the brass is recycled) and this can be particularly problematic when there is a combination of high quality soft (unbuffered) rainwater sitting in pumps, pipes and taps as this can corrode the metal and leach lead. I have been told the problem can be exacerbated with plastic or plastic lined tanks, as concrete tanks contain calcium carbonate (lime) that acts as a buffer to harden the water. People with metal tanks also may have harder water, unless they have a plastic liner. Therefore it is particularly important to ensure that the pH and hardness is controlled if your tank is plastic. This is not an isolated or unknown problem. However, the lack of understanding and ignorance of the problem is common where I live - a place where hundreds of new houses are built every year, accompanied by plastic rainwater tanks. Indeed it was news to us.
My children all have had blood lead tests, and no matter what the numbers show it is heartbreaking to think that every time I gave them a home cooked meal, made their lunches, washed their fruit or told them to drink a glass of water, I was dosing them with lead (a dose which is much higher than background lead water levels). The World Health Organisation says there is no safe threshold of lead, and indeed studies continue to be published to show that very low levels of lead over a period of time cause learning problems and reduced IQ, these problems persist into the future. We can’t turn back time. All we can do now is prevent further unnecessary lead exposures from happening.
Talking to the laboratories in my own town it became apparent that it is rare for a tank owner to request heavy metal testing. There is a complacency amongst tank owners and a belief that if you are drinking water from the sky, you are drinking the best water available. However in several studies this has been proven not always to be the case. If you are on your own water supply you should be checking the water quality, and this includes for common heavy metals such as copper and lead, (you can’t see, smell or taste lead in water).
I urge all people who own rainwater tanks to contact a NATA accredited lab for testing, or to get in contact with The LEAD Group for a sampling kit. Good quality drinking water is achievable and should be available to everybody no matter where you live.