The continuing threat of lead poisoning underlines the scale of shortcomings in Irish water quality

Threat to health of consumers may be greater than previously anticipated

Tens of thousands of householders may, unknowingly, be poisoning their families because of lead contamination in their drinking water. The number may be greater and the threat to public health more insidious. But the relevant authorities have been reluctant, over many years, to provide an analysis of the extent of the problem or to publish details of remedial programmes. It all comes down to money.

Concealing unpalatable information from the consumer is nothing new, particularly where public health is concerned. But the behaviour of some local authorities and, more recently, Irish Water has verged on the reckless. Oversight authorities like the Health Service Executive and the Environment Protection Agency found it necessary, last year, to prosecute Kerry County Council and Irish Water for failing to obey directions and replace lead water mains serving a housing estate. The root cause for this festering problem can be traced to long-standing government negligence and inadequate investment.

Prior to the late 1970s, public water mains and supply services invariably involved the use of lead. When the health dangers were recognised, a process of replacing public lead piping was instigated and is now largely completed. But householders were held responsible for replacing any lead piping on their property. Drinking water contaminated by lead affects brain development in children and has been linked to kidney disease, high blood pressure and cancer. Growing medical concerns and EU pressure caused the safe lead limits in drinking water being cut from 50 to 10 micrograms per litre.

Back in 2007, the Environment Protection Agency advised all local authorities to conduct surveys and identify the extent of the problem. But details of those locations most at risk were kept from the public. Irish Water may be aping that pattern of behaviour. The public utility is required to conduct random sampling of households to ensure compliance with EU regulations. But because lead is just one of the contaminants tested for, the company declines to drill down into the figures to establish the number of homes under threat. What has emerged, however, is that homes in Raheny and Clontarf in Dublin are particularly vulnerable.

Repairing public mains and providing safe drinking water is expensive, following decades of neglect. It is no surprise that Irish Water does not want to become embroiled in replacing lead connections on private property. That has always been the responsibility of the householder. But public health concerns should prompt the Government to take action. When confronted by fierce opposition to septic tank inspections in rural areas, it introduced a special repairs grant, based on income. Similar action in urban areas could address the threat of lead poisoning.