Irish Water has launched an eight-week consultation period on its draft plan to reduce lead in drinking water as more than 180,000 homes still have the older pipes, which have been linked to health problems.

The Lead in Drinking Water Mitigation Plan includes more widespread sampling — already underway. The sampling is used to inform people of the health risks of lead in drinking water and prioritise action taken by Irish Water.

Irish Water is now testing 35,000 random samples of water quality annually, compared with 3,000 previously.

The utility estimates that about 180,000 homes and hundreds of commercial and public buildings still have lead plumbing, including lead service pipes from the water main to the stopcock.

Of the homes affected, about 40,000 are thought to have shared backyard (common service pipes) that Irish Water will be replacing over the next five years.

Irish Water has urged all homeowners whose houses were built before 1980 to check their internal plumbing for lead pipes.

The draft plan is based on major surveys, a review of international practices and consultation on the issues with the main health, environmental and other interested parties.

The Irish Water managing director, Jerry Grant, said drinking water produced at the utility’s plants was lead-free, and all lead water mains in the distribution system had been replaced.

A programme to replace remaining lead service connectors, short pipes connecting the water main to property boundaries, has begun.

Mr Grant said the replacement of common or shared backyard service pipes had been prioritised.

“The greatest risk remaining from lead in drinking water is, therefore, arising on private property from internal plumbing,” he said.

While full lead replacement was the best option, this had taken decades in other countries so the possibility of treating the water to reduce the risk was an option.

“A food-grade product called orthophosphate can be added to drinking water at our plants to coat old lead pipes in people’s homes and reduce exposure and consequent health risk until the pipes are replaced,” said Mr Grant.

He pointed out that orthophosphate was extensively used in Britain, Northern Ireland, and widely across North America.

However, Irish Water is legally obliged to consider the potential impact on the environment, and this would involve individual assessment for each Irish water supply.

“We are now asking members of the public to look at the plan and give us their feedback on our proposed approach. In the meantime, we are also asking all property owners, especially those with young children, to check for lead pipes and to have them replaced if at all possible,” said Mr Grant.

The Department of the Environment has established a grant scheme to assist low-income households in replacing lead pipes.

The public consultation on the draft plan will run from today until September 2. It can be viewed online at www.water.ie/lead and at local authority offices.

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