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  QUESTION: An appropriate level of concern about drinking water from lead pipes in Sydney, 18 May 2006, New South Wales Australia

I called GLASS and asked about lead leaching from the pipes at my rental property - built in 1910. I was told it is a real concern and to either get the water tested or get a blood test. I requested that a sample bottle be sent but I haven't received this yet. (sample bottles no longer available)

My neighbour lives in the same building (semi) she rang GLASS and was told that the water pipes are not likely to be leaching lead now because they are so old, and contamination from lead pipes is very rare and not a real concern.

Could I get an informed answer on this question please.

Thank You

ANSWER: 18 May 2006

Dear Madam,

you have had an informed answer on this topic Kim. You have just misrepresented it. Can I help it if the government thinks lead is such an unimportant issue that they don't provide ANY wages funding to run this service and my send-out volunteer didn't turn up this week so I have to prioritise all the things that require doing before she comes next Monday and I decided that, since your interest in the lead analysis of your drinking water was basically academic, it could wait another week. My recollection of my telephone conversation with your neighbour is basically as you reported it except that it is more pertinent to say "contamination from lead pipes is very rare in Australia and not likely to be the main source of lead in an adult."

My recollection of my telephone conversation with you is nothing like you reported it: "I was told it is a real concern and to either get the water tested or get a blood test."

What I actually said was something like: "contamination from lead pipes is very rare in Australia and not likely to be the main source of lead in an adult. If you are concerned that you may be lead poisoned then you are better off to get a blood lead test. If you have an elevated blood lead level in NSW then the Health Dept will do a lead assessment of your home and test all the likely sources and if they deem it necessary, this will include a lead analysis of the drinking water. The only provocation for lead entering Sydney's water from lead pipes is if the water is acidic or is heated." You then said "All the water sits in the 30 m pipe in the sun that runs down the side of the house" so it seemed useful to get a lead analysis of the water to be sure." At no stage did I say that your drinking water lead level is likely to be high or that it was a "real concern". I avoid telling people what they should be concerned about - and I've worked (mostly for no remuneration) for 15 years to help people work out how to get the information so that their level of concern is appropriate to their actual situation.

While I'm writing to you, I should be helping other inquirers to gain further information for known lead poisoning cases and high-risk cases. So I'll get back to researching for that smelter community in Africa that I was working on when your email arrived.

If you really want to write a useful letter it would be to the Prime Minister to point out the lack of data on drinking water lead levels in Australian homes and how the quality of drinking water once it enters your home plumbing from your water supplier is not covered under any legislation and therefore if there was a change for instance to the pH or chemical content of the water, it COULD conceivably leach lead out of old lead pipes. Sydney Water and other water authorities should be forced to test actual tap water for lead, rather than just always testing mains water, especially if they change their water treatment regimes, especially since most householders (even those with the higher risk tank water supplies) are totally unaware that they or their landlord are personally responsible for the quality of their tap water.

Yours Sincerely
Elizabeth O'Brien

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