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Lead Pipes

Health Canada - In most of Canada, the amount of lead in natural water supplies is very low. However, lead can enter the water supply from lead solder in plumbing, lead service connections or lead pipes in your home. Homes built before 1950 often have leaded distribution lines and service connections. In newer homes, lead may leach from solder for several years until the pipes form a protective oxide layer. Lead is more likely to be found in soft or very acidic water and in very old or very new homes. The National Plumbing Code of Canada does not permit the use of lead solder in new drinking water plumbing or repairs to drinking water supplies. Several provinces also limit the amount of lead solder in drinking water supply lines.

Lead levels in tap water increase as water stands in pipes. It's a good idea, especially with soft water, to run the cold water first thing in the morning or any other time the system hasn't been used for a number of hours. Use only cold tap water for drinking, cooking and making baby formula, since hot water is likely to contain more lead. Drinking fountains may have higher levels of lead than water from nearby taps, because the water usually sits for a longer time. They may also have more soldered joints.

Health Risks

Short-term exposure to high levels of lead can cause vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, coma or even death. Severe cases of lead poisoning are rare in Canada.

However, even small amounts of lead can be harmful, especially to infants, young children and pregnant women. Symptoms of long-term exposure to lower lead levels may be less noticeable but are still serious. Anaemia is common and damage to the nervous system may cause impaired mental function. Other symptoms are appetite loss, abdominal pain, constipation, fatigue, sleeplessness, irritability and headache. Continued excessive exposure, as in an industrial setting, can affect the kidneys.

Lead exposure is most serious for young children because they absorb lead more easily than adults and are more susceptible to its harmful effects. Even low level exposure may harm the intellectual development, behaviour, size and hearing of infants. During pregnancy, especially in the last trimester, lead can cross the placenta and affect the unborn child. Female workers exposed to high levels of lead have more miscarriages and stillbirths.

If you are concerned about lead exposure, your doctor can conduct a simple blood test to measure your blood lead level. Your doctor will recommend corrective action if the amount is over 10 micrograms per decilitre.

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