Queen’s University Belfast: Researchers to test Belfast drinking water for lead contamination

Northern Ireland was absent from a major UK report on lead contamination due to a lack of data but it is estimated that around 25 per cent of homes have some water pipes made from lead in Northern Ireland.

Low level lead contamination is dangerous to human health, particularly in young children as it can affect brain development and kidneys, and is linked to heart disease, social deviance, and cancers.

The UK reference limit for lead in water is 10 µgPb/L but some researchers argue that this should be lower.

Queen’s University researchers carried out a small study on 35 Belfast households. They found that 15 per cent of the samples collected exceeded the UK reference limit for lead.

They also found that five test results were higher than 50 µgPb/L and one reaching 95.2 µgPb/L. The study found some lead in all of the houses tested and the researchers state that there is no safe threshold of exposure to lead.

Dr Tristan Sturm from Queen’s is one of the researchers working on the study. He says: “Lead contaminated water is a silent crisis, which is why after undertaking a small study in Belfast we decided that further testing is necessary. It took similar university research and community work in Flint, Michigan, to expose the crisis there.

“Without proper testing of drinking water, our cities are complicity producing the next generation of children who might under-perform, be prone to violence, or suffer debilitating bodily harm relative to their unexposed peers.

“Lead exposure during critical brain development between ages of one and five has the most adverse effects on humans causing irreversible and permanent brain damage. But our local community isn’t fully aware of the issue and there is no awareness campaign from service providers.

“It’s also the case that many healthcare professionals are unaware as we do not have the data for Northern Ireland and there is a lack of regulation as landlords and homeowners are not obligated to test and replace.

“Lead water pipes were common in homes built in Belfast before 1970. In this project we have funding to test 300 households in Belfast and we want to get water samples from houses built before 1970.”

He adds: “Our initial study – a small random sample – showed that many of the homes we tested had levels higher than the UK reference limit. This reference limit is actually a false economy of safety – we would argue that it should be much lower. So to find that some houses were vastly higher than this was quite shocking.

“This is why we want to do further testing – we hope that this will inform householders about their drinking water and if levels are high, they will be able to take steps to ensure that this is rectified. We also hope that the results will inform policy makers and ensure that the issue is raised and addressed.”

The researchers hope to complete testing by December 2022. To take part, residents will be asked to fill a one litre bottle of water in the morning and a member of the research will pick it up from their house and send it for testing.

The results will then be available to the residents in either August or December – depending on when the sample was submitted and researchers will be on hand to discuss the results and suggested steps to rectify the situation.

Some of the most common ways to address water contamination are replacing the pipes, installing a filter or simply letting the water run before drinking it. Aggregated results will be made available to the public at a later date.