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Why is there lead in the water?
The water produced at the State’s 900-odd treatment plants is lead-free, as is the water mains network which carries it.
However, for many years lead was used in “service connections”, the pipes running from the public mains to houses, and routinely used in the plumbing of homes up to the mid-1970s. The lead in these pipes can leach out in to the water.
How many homes are affected?
Irish Water estimates that about 180,000 homes are affected, but only those built before 1980. From the mid-1970s on, the risks associated with lead became widely accepted and its use in pipes ended.
What are the risks?
The HSE and the EPA say that no level of lead in drinking water is now considered to be completely safe. Consumption of lead can affect brain development, with young children, infants and babies in the womb most at risk. Lead may also harm kidneys, may contribute to high blood pressure and has been linked to cancer, according to the State agencies.
What is the plan to fix it?
The ultimate solution is to replace the lead pipes. Irish water is to spend €370 million over the next decade replacing lead pipes on the public water supply, and where houses have shared backyard service connections it will also replace these.
However, it will not replace pipes under front gardens or in houses.
So homeowners have to foot the bill?
Yes. Depending on how much lead plumbing is on the property the homeowner could face a bill of up to €5,000, or more if it is a very large house.
There is State assistance for this bill in the form of a grant. Households with an income of €50,000 or under will be entitled to a grant of up to €4,000, while those with an income between €50,000 and €75,000 will be entitled to receive a grant of €2,500. Households should apply to their local authority.
Ten years is a long time. Will people be drinking lead-laced water until then?
As an interim measure Irish Water is proposing to dose the water supply with a chemical called orthophosphate, which forms a protective film around the inside of the pipe providing a barrier between water and the lead.
Is adding more chemicals to the water supply a good idea?
That is something likely to be thrashed out during the public consultation on Irish Water’s lead-mitigation plans. Orthophosphate is described by Irish Water as a “food grade product and is a clear, odourless liquid which is very common in the beverage industry”.
The HSE says there are no public health implications for its use. However, Ireland does have a problem with too much phosphate in rivers and lakes which can be environmentally damaging, so sewage may have to be treated to remove orthophosphate.