Water Series: Why Should We Keep An Eye On Lead?

October 25, 2016

During my own water studies and research I came across a few interesting findings. 

One of the topics which is still relevant today are heavy metals and their presence in drinking water.

I want to share with you why and how can exposure to even low levels of lead affect our health, what to be aware of and what we can do. Let's start. 


According to the European Environment and Health Information System, there is no such thing as a safe level of exposure to lead. (1)

Lead is a highly toxic substance (a poison) and its presence in our environment is not worth ignoring.


Have you ever wondered where the word plumbing comes from? 


Plumbum (Pb) (here it is - the latin word for lead), was used in the Roman Empire in a number of ways, one of which were water pipes. 

During the 17th century so called lead sugar (lead acetate) was still used as a sweetener or to improve the taste of wine and caused a lot of havoc to those who drank it. (2)

Some of you might also remember leaded petrol used in cars. Lead in petrol was removed (now unleaded) fairly recently (2000 in the UK), primarily because it was causing excessive level of wear and tear in car engines. (3) It isn't surprising that this change in the motor industry also resulted in a significant fall in blood lead levels in children. (Note - health risk wasn't the primary driver!)


Lead-based paint, prohibited for further use not that long ago in 1992, is also worth mentioning  as a source of exposure (4). 


Let's briefly discuss how lead interacts with various parts in the human body.




We have all heard of calcium.  Almost every cell in our body uses it in some way - from cell signalling, nervous system, muscles, heart to bone building.

In terms of of its atomic size and structure, lead and calcium are very much alike, which means that lead will happily replace calcium when the opportunity arises.

If there is exposure to a higher level of lead during the time when bones are formed, there will be a continuous burden on the body as some of this lead is turned over in the bone.


Cell function


Lead accumulates in the mitochondria, which is the cell's energy factory, and causes changes both in structure and in function, resulting in reduced cell respiration and energy production. (5)


Urinary tract


Because the kidney is one of the main routes through which lead is eliminated, it will be damaged by it. The area affected is the part of the kidney responsible for regulation of blood pressure. It then makes sense that lead poisoning is one of the causes hypertension (high blood pressure), gout (build-up of uric acid) as well as renal failure. (6)


Children's development


Now, here's the most important part. As a metal, lead doesn't degrade. Apart from bones or teeth it can be found in hair and blood (red blood cells) and can be transferred between a pregnant mother and a developing foetus through placenta. It is accumulated even more easily in the developing baby. (7)

Children, who are most at risk, are also affected in terms of their intellectual and neurobehavioural development. (8) As lead replaces calcium (involved in brain function), it is able to affect how brain structure is developed and how cells communicate with one another.

Studies suggest a strong link between levels of lead and decreased cognition and motor ability in children. Another strong connection has been found with the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) (9),  distractibility and other characteristics of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. (10)


 Other effects of lead


And the list goes on. Short-term acute exposure to lead can lead to brain damage, paralysis (lead palsy), anaemia and gastrointestinal symptoms. In addition to the above, longer-term exposure can also cause damage to the reproductive and immune systems.


Things to consider


1. Since I live in Scotland I checked out what Scottish Water had to say on that topic. Their website says that the original lead service pipes in the UK were gradually replaced by blue plastic during the 1960s, and officially became illegal in 1969.

Here's a catch: If you're residing in a property built before 1969 and you know that no new service pipes were fitted in the whole property (including the underground), there is a pretty good chance that your water is still contaminated with lead.


2. It is not your local Council's responsibility to replace your property line and plumbing, therefore the investment to replace these completely is in the hands of the property owner. (11)


3. The longer the exposure of lead with water, the more it will leach. This means that if you know you have lead plumbing, don't just drink unfiltered tap water on waking. Let it run for couple of minutes first instead. (or buy a good water filter)


4. Boiling your water will not remove lead or any other heavy metals. On the contrary, it will concentrate it.


5. When searching for a good a water filter, choose one that removes min. 99% of soluble metals. There are filters on the market that will do that, both on tap and as an in-build whole house system. We started filtering our water nearly five years ago, when I embarked on my water research journey, and it will always stay this way where possible. All in all, we are made of more than 99% of water on a molecular level and we aren't only what we eat, but mainly what we drink and absorb.


Our aim is to share the above information to help you feel more empowered, make more useful choices, to encourage you to focus on prevention and solutions to stay healthy and increase your resilience.





1) Levels of Lead in Children

2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead(II)_acetate#Sweetener

3) http://www.theaa.com/motoring_advice/fuel/LRP.html

4) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead-based_paint_in_the_United_Kingdom

5) http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/242605-overview

6) http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=7&po=10

7) http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/2060369-overview

8) https://www.fsai.ie/workarea/downloadasset.aspx?id=8412

9) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8162884

10) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2902938/

11) Scottish Water Fact Sheet

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