More than 30,000 households across the country may be at risk of lead poisoning from drinking water supplied through lead pipes.
Four county councils are under orders from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to replace the last known four kilometres of lead piping in public water mains.
But the EPA warned there may be other lead mains dating back to Victorian times that have not been identified because there are no surviving records of them.
And the agency says there is a more pressing problem of private households that are served by modern public mains but have old lead pipes running through their property, connecting the mains to their taps.
The EPA’s warning comes as the countdown to the implementation of new Europe-wide lead limits begins. From next December, a limit of 10 microgrammes of lead per litre of water will apply — down from the current level of 25 microgrammes — although ideally there would be no traces of the metal.
“There is not really any safe level of lead,” explained Darragh Page, inspector with the EPA which warns that exposure to lead can damage the central nervous system.
“Babies and young children are particularly vulnerable because the amount of water they drink per body weight is proportionately higher and because their central nervous system is still developing.”
Exactly how many households are at risk is hard to quantify but latest test results from the EPA show that close to 98% of drinking water sampled met with the new limits. That leaves just over 2% of supplies, which equates to at least 32,000 homes, exceeding the limits.
Mr Page said some householders may not be aware they still have lead pipes — which generally pre-date 1970 — while others know but don’t address the problem. “There is an issue with reluctance. People don’t always want to dig up their garden or kitchen floor. Not everybody takes it on board.”
Dr Anthony Breslin, specialist in public health with the HSE, said people should take the possibility of lead poisoning seriously.
“It doesn’t present terribly frequently but it’s a serious issue in that people, particularly children, could be exposed over a long time in their own homes.”
The Green Party has called for a grant scheme to assist householders with the cost of replacing lead pipes which can run to thousands of euro, saying it could be funded from the property tax initially and subsequently from domestic water charges.
The Department of the Environment said it had no plans to provide any financial assistance to private householders to carry out such work.
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