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Calls for tougher rules around home plumbing after lead contamination in drinking water

Traces of lead in our water supplies is becoming a national problem and there are calls for tougher rules around the most common source - the plumbing in our homes.

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The issue’s been brought to light by a contamination scare in east Otago. Source: 1 NEWS

The issue has been brought to light by a contamination scare in East Otago, and the high lead levels discovered in some of the local resident’s blood.

Waikouaiti, Karitāne and Hawksbury residents know better than most the consequences of high levels of lead in their water.

But the problem is much wider than just those three towns.

“Lead is an issue in New Zealand. It's a prevalent issue because it has been so widely used and unfortunately in some cases it's still being widely used,” says Professor Sally Gaw from the University of Canterbury.

The source of this contamination in East Otago is not clear yet, but Water NZ says there could be a number of factors.

“There are many sources of lead in the water, coming from the joins of cast-iron pipes is one option … poor, cheap tap fittings is [also] another source of lead,” says Noel Roberts.

Long term lead exposure can affect children's brain development, and cause depression and memory loss in adults.

Studies have found the most common source of contamination in our water is from household plumbing.

“We know that we have products coming to New Zealand from tapware, brassware and pipe systems that have lead content in them and what happens is the lead leaches into the system,” says Greg Wallace from Master Plumbers.

The United States has already moved to a zero-lead benchmark for tapware and Australia is moving the same way.

In a statement, Building and Construction Minister, Poto Williams told 1 NEWS it has rejected the idea of a zero-lead standard, saying new rules going through Parliament should be enough to make sure our taps are up to scratch.

“There are levels of lead that is acceptable in drinking water and that's why you have maximum acceptable values in the drinking water standard,” says Noel Roberts.

The Ministry of Health says all known lengths of lead pipe in New Zealand's water system have already been replaced.

But experts say some older sections should also be updated.

“We do have a legacy of our aging infrastructure and how those water pipes were made going back 40, 50, 60 years and in some areas 100 years ago and that is slowly being taken out as infrastructure fails or gets updated but I think it should be a priority,” says Professor Sally Gaw from the University of Canterbury.

For now though, official advice is to run your taps first before taking a drink, to flush through any unwanted extras.