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Reducing the risk of low level lead exposure from drinking water

Tap with running water into glass

Australia's drinking water is of extremely high quality, with the PCA and Australian Standards allowing only a small amount of lead to be used in the manufacture of plumbing products. The exact lead content of products varies by component, although some products in contact with drinking water may contain up to 6% lead as a proportion of raw material.

Lead is added to copper alloy products to make it softer and more malleable. Evidence suggests that copper alloy products used within the water service are the most likely source of lead contamination of drinking water.

Background research

In response to reports of lead levels being detected in water at concentrations higher than those prescribed in the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, the ABCB has conducted work over the past 24 months to examine the extent of lead contamination in drinking water from lead in plumbing products.

In January 2018, the ABCB commissioned Macquarie University to undertake a literature review to determine to what extent plumbing products and materials contribute to lead levels in drinking water.

The review resulted in the Lead in Plumbing Products and Materials Report, which confirmed that components containing lead such as copper alloy products used in drinking water supply and plumbing systems can leach lead into drinking water. It recommended that the ABCB consider reducing the permissible lead levels in plumbing products that are in contact with drinking water.

In addition to commissioning the review, the ABCB held a Lead in Plumbing Products Forum with representatives of plumbing product manufacturers, suppliers, designers, installers, health officials and representatives from the relevant Standards Australia Technical Committees to identify options to reduce the lead levels in drinking water and explore the possible impacts on industry.

It is also important to note that Australia’s drinking water quality is within the top 15% internationally, however the rare instances of excessive lead content in drinking water appear to be typically associated with the use of products that do not conform with Australian standards, or through water having remained stagnant within plumbing products or pipework for extended periods of time.

A Consultation Regulation Impact Statement

A Consultation Regulation Impact Statement (RIS) on lead in plumbing products in contact with drinking water is now open for public comment until 11.59PM AEDT Sunday, 1 March 2021.

The RIS contains 3 options and aims to address the risk of low level lead exposure from drinking water:

1. Retaining the status quo (no change to the current arrangements).
2. Requiring all products in contact with drinking water contain a reduced level of lead; a maximum of 0.25%.
3. Promoting the increased use of low lead products through an industry-led labelling scheme and recommend changes to government procurement standards.

If Option 2 is supported, this would mean any copper alloy plumbing products installed in Australia that come in contact with drinking water must meet a weighted average of not more than 0.25% lead content. Currently the maximum allowable lead content of copper alloy products is 6%. The requirement would be outlined within the Public Comment Draft of the 2022 National Construction Code and include a suitable transitional period.

If Option 3 is supported, an industry led labelling scheme would be developed to assist consumers to distinguish low lead products. This would enable consumers to make informed decisions about which products they choose to purchase and install.

More details on all the options are contained within the RIS.

Have your say

You are encouraged to provide comment on the RIS.

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