AT LEAST 5,500km of lead-pipe water supplies will have to be removed by next year at a cost in the region of €500 million due to health concerns.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working with local authorities and the Health Service Executive to identify and replace all lead pipes in the State’s distribution network in advance of December 2013 EU limits for concentrations of the metal in drinking water.
Lead has been recognised as a health hazard since the 1950s, particularly to young children and foetuses whose developing brains are vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning.
While some 98 per cent of the State’s water supplies have been compliant with the current EU standard of up to 25 microgrammes of lead to a litre of water, this standard is set to tighten to 10 microgrammes a litre in 2013.
The agency said samples from 23 water authorities breached limits in 2010 but on the basis of the 2013 allowable levels, 63 supplies would be in breach of EU regulations.
Work by local authorities to identify further lead pipes in the distribution network is ongoing.
Larger local authorities that are also water authorities are liable for the cost of replacing lead mains pipes. However many houses built before 1970 may also have “service” pipes connecting them to the mains made from lead. Older houses may also use the material in internal plumbing. In these cases, the agency says the responsibility for replacing pipes lies with the householder.
The EPA said it wanted to raise public awareness of the issue “to prevent the need to be playing catch-up with public health issues in 2014”.
The deadline of December 25th, 2013, gives the State almost two years to carry out the work.
A programme by water authorities to replace lead pipes has been ongoing but in recent years, the agency has issued new guidance asking authorities to bring the network within 2013 requirements.
This had resulted in local authorities increasing efforts to identify and replace lead mains pipes. The EPA has issued five legally binding orders on compliance to four water authorities in respect of supplies in Mallow, Co Cork, Ennis, Co Clare, Lough Guitane, Co Kerry, Longford central and Granard, Co Longford.
The EPA said 5,559km of lead pipes had been identified by these water authorities, not counting Granard where work was ongoing.
Before Christmas, a monitoring programme by Fingal County Council identified one house where the exceedances were some 2½ times the permitted level. This would be more than seven times the allowable level under the 2013 regulations.
Programme manager with the EPA’s Office of Environmental Enforcement Gerard O’Leary said Ireland’s compliance rate with EU drinking water regulations would decline rapidly in 2013 if the work was not carried out.
He said there was a double benefit in replacing lead pipes in that they were a health hazard and also prone to leak. There would be some cost sharing with local authority and Government funded efforts to replace leaking water mains.