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  QUESTION: Did Australian researchers corroborate lead solder as the source of lead in drinking water or just assume it? 11 Jul 2002, Scotland UK

I have been involved in studies looking at the use of leaded solder on the drinking water plumbing of new housing in Scotland and am interested in details of the surveys of lead levels in drinking water cited in your information.

Has the work by Dr. Brian Gulson in Sydney or the work in Perth in 1993 been published or is it available otherwise?

I am particularly interested in whether corroboration on the use of leaded solder was obtained or if it was assumed that the high lead levels found were due to leaded solder.

Evidence in Scotland suggests that leaded solder was being used extensively by plumbers on the copper drinking water plumbing in new houses, despite a supposed ban.

ANSWER: 11 Jul 2002

Dear Colin,

I am copying this email to the two research organisations that you referred to in your email and a third research group mentioned in our fact sheet, so that you may communicate directly if required.

As noted in the reference list of our web-published fact sheet "Lead in Drinking Water in Australia - Hazards associated with lead based solder on pipes", the two references of interest to you were published as follows:

  1. 'Effect of plumbing on lead content of drinking water and contribution to lead body burden', Brian L. Gulson, Alistair J. Law, Michael J. Korsch, Karen J. Mizon, The Science of the Total Environment, 1994. Abstract: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0048969794904472
  2. 'Lead contamination in Perth drinking water', Peter McCafferty MRCI, Roger Schulz and Ron D’Ercole, Chemistry in Australia, August 1995.

Unfortunately, the Lead Advisory Service Australia does not have an emailable copy of either article but Online access to full text articles for The Science of the Total Environment is, according to www.elsevier.nl/locate/scitotenv available to those readers whose library has subscribed to The Science of the Total Environment via ScienceDirect Digital Collections, or, has a current print subscription to The Science of the Total Environment and has registered for ScienceDirect Web Editions. In our library we have the Gulson article but Prof Gulson may be able to assist us with an emailable copy and we could then pass it on to you. We could also post you a copy of the McCafferty et al article OR perhaps the Chemistry Centre could provide us with an emailable copy that we could then pass on to you.

As noted in our factsheet, the Chemistry Centre Western Australia research by McCafferty et al was conducted in Perth on water collected from water boilers, urns and coffee and cappuccino machines from restaurants, offices, workplaces and schools, and found that 67% of the samples contained excessive levels of lead. The researchers stated that the probable source of the contamination was brass components in contact with hot water, although they also mentioned bronze and solder alloys as a source of corroded lead, and corroded lead from galvanic effects where "inappropriate solders have been used on copper pipes or brass taps."

When I rang the Chemistry Centre (Western Australia) after a search of their website www.ccwa.wa.gov.au did not reveal any research on lead in drinking water, I was advised that of the 3 authors of the Perth drinking water lead study, Peter McCafferty left 2 wks ago on 3 mths long service leave, Ron D'Ercole left years ago & Roger Schulz, the water expert there, just retired on Friday though he is now doing consulting work.

I was also advised by Jenny McGuire at the Chemistry Centre that the Chemistry Centre now is commercialised such that funding must be provided for any research carried out. No follow-up testing has been done as of July 2002 on the 1995 research by Peter McCafferty, Roger Schulz and Ron d'Ercole, which found that 67% of hot water dispensers in Perth provided water that exceeded the drinking water standard for lead and 5% of the samples in a survey of cold water from home kitchen taps in Perth also exceeded the national guideline lead level of 0.01 mg/L. Australian Standard AS3855, 1992 allowed up to 6% lead in brass at the time but this has since been revised down to 4.5%. The researchers asked in 1995 "will this be sufficient?". Jenny also said that some small cost research can be done with floating funds and follow-up research to determine whether the 4.5% lead in brass limit is protective enough (considering other sources of lead in the house plumbing such as solder) will be considered by the Chemistry Centre in that category.

You would do well to put your other question ("I am particularly interested in whether corroboration on the use of leaded solder was obtained or if it was assumed that the high lead levels found were due to leaded solder") to Professor Gulson and to Jenny McGuire, or through her, to Roger Schulz (his number is not listed in the Perth phone book) but I can tell you the following based on the articles we have in our library.

Professor Gulson et al concluded that "the isotopic composition of the first flush water reflects the solder with lead from the geologically different sources which is used in the brass joints". In relation to the source of lead within the plumbing system, Peter McCafferty et al noted "A low but significant correlation was found between zinc and lead" [Elizabeth O'Brien's question: does this implicate galvanized components such as galvanized pipes??] in the cold drinking water survey but for the hot water appliance survey stated: "Physical examination and subsequent analysis of several identified components from the appliances that had delivered contaminated water, indicated that the probable source of contamination was brass components in contact with the hot water."

Neither group of researchers has detailed how they concluded that the lead solder or the leaded brass respectively (rather than the other component or the combination of the two components) was the probable source of lead contamination although Professor Gulson's team may have carried out isotopic fingerprinting on the lead in the brass as well as on the lead in the solder used in the brass joints, but simply not commented on it.

The other worrying research mentioned in our factsheet was the "Investigation of Microbiological and Chemical Water Quality in Rainwater Tanks in Victoria, Report No. 139/97" by Bannister, R; Westwood J; McNeill, A; Water Ecoscience Pty Ltd for Department of Natural Resources and Environment (VIC), June 1997. Ross Bannister can be emailed on [email protected] if you would like to put the same question to him. His research group concluded (on page 17 of their 43 page report) that "The lead found in this study correlated with zinc concentrations in galvanised iron tanks suggesting that it has arisen from dissolution of zinc and associated lead-based solders." It is difficult to understand this conclusion considering that lead levels in tap water from tanks categorised as being constructed of materials that were "inert" were higher (level of significance not stated) than the lead levels from galvanized iron tanks (which were higher than the levels from concrete tanks). "The inert category includes painted GI [Elizabeth O'Brien's comment: galvanised iron - it is not stated whether these are painted inside or outside the tank or both], plastic [Elizabeth O'Brien's comment: presumably both non-leaded polyethylene plastic and leaded or non-leaded PVC tanks], and fibreglass-lined tanks with surfaces which would not interact with the stored water."

I'm sorry I cannot supply a more clear answer to your interesting question but I wish you well in your further communication with the researchers on this issue. In case either research organisation emails you directly, please let me know if you need me to post the articles. It sounds as though your question has not been properly researched in Australia so I look forward to hearing of a research project being set up to determine the contribution of lead to tap water from every component in the catchment / plumbing system.

I wish someone in Australia would investigate whether leaded solder was being used extensively by plumbers on the copper drinking water plumbing in new houses, despite our supposed ban. Nothing would surprise me, considering the "She'll be right mate" attitude we are famous for. As stated in our factsheet, "the manufacturers of lead solder are under no obligation to label their product as unsuitable for use on drinking water pipes." We have been unable to locate a leaded solder in Australia that carries a warning label against its use for drinking water systems. When Patricia Parkinson was researching our factsheet she asked the Master Plumbers Association (Australia) the QUESTION: Is it illegal to use leaded solder on drinking water pipes? ANSWER: (in February 2000) "No, it is not illegal. Apprentices are taught to use 50/50 lead/tin solder." The Australian & New Zealand Standard - AS/NZS4020:1999 Products For Use In Contact With Drinking Water unfortunately only requires that individual components in a drinking water system provide water that complies with the water lead guideline - so if the solder in the pipes contributes 2 µg/L and the solder in the taps contributes 2 µg/L and the brass contributes some and the galvanized pipes contribute some and it all adds up to more than 10 µg/L - no-one is responsible except the home-owner (who wouldn't know).

The situation is particularly bad for owners of rainwater tanks who have no idea generally that they are responsible for the quality of their drinking water (no regulation requires that the owner be informed of their responsibility). The trouble is, the roofing materials and gutters (including presumably the lead-based solder used in jointing metal roof sheets and gutters), even though they are clearly in contact with the drinking water, are not required to comply with AS/NZS4020:1999 Products For Use In Contact With Drinking Water.
Have you investigated rainwater tanks and do you find that lead solder is used in their manufacture or installation in Scotland?

Please keep in touch. We would love a copy of your research for our library.
Yours sincerely
Elizabeth O'Brien

Dear Colin, I also sent your inquiry to New South Wales (NSW) Water Unit and here is the response:

Hi Elizabeth

Regarding lead in drinking water (ie at the tap) Sydney Water tested 336 samples during 2001. All results were below the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines value of 0.01 mg/L. I do not have the figures for Hunter Water Corporation but I believe that all results were clear.

Between January 2001 and 11 July 2002, 549 samples were tested from towns across regional NSW. Three of the 549 results did not meet the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines. All other results met the Guidelines.

Perhaps the first step regarding rainwater is to carry out monitoring what concentrations of lead are present. The new NSW Health private water supplies policy will require the proprietors of premises serving the public to monitor for health related chemicals such as lead. This data will help in our understanding of lead in rainwater.

I will need to consult my colleagues on the other issues you raise.

regards
Paul Byleveld PhD
Senior Policy Advisor, Water Unit
NSW Department of Health
PO Box 798 GLADESVILLE NSW 2111

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