Testing the waters - Researchers warn of the risks of lead contamination

Queen’s University Belfast is looking for help from the city's residents to take part in a significant new study. Chloe Trew  |  Fri Jul 15 2022
Testing the waters - Researchers warn of the risks of lead contamination

This summer, PPR is working with researchers at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) who are looking to test drinking water in 300 Belfast homes for lead contamination.

Low level lead contamination is dangerous to human health and the QUB research team are keen to understand more about how much might be present in Belfast’s water supplies.

It is thought that around 25 per cent of water pipes in Northern Ireland are made from lead. Lead water pipes are common in homes built in Belfast before 1970, so researchers are especially interested in getting samples from properties of this age.

Dr Tristan Sturm from QUB is one of the researchers working on the study. He and his colleagues have already carried out a small amount of testing on 35 Belfast households. They found that 15 per cent of the samples collected exceeded the UK reference limit for lead.

He says: “Water contaminated by lead is a silent crisis, which is why after undertaking a small study in Belfast we decided that further testing is necessary. It took similar university research and community work in Flint, Michigan, to expose the crisis there.”

“Our initial study – a small random sample - showed that many of the homes we tested had levels higher than the UK reference limit.  This is why we want to do further testing – we hope that this will inform householders about their drinking water and if levels are high, they will be able to take steps to address this.”

Some of the most common ways to address water contamination are replacing the pipes, installing a filter or simply letting the water run before drinking it.

“There is a lack of regulation in the north as landlords do not have to test and replace lead pipes. We hope that by getting more data we can inform politicians and policy makers to take action to change this.”

Tristan and his team hope to complete testing by December 2022.

If you live in Belfast in a house built before 1970 and you’d like to be a part of the project, please contact Dr Tristan Sturm by email at leadwater@qub.ac.uk.

You’ll be asked to fill a litre bottle of water in the morning and a member of the research will pick it up from your house and send it for testing.

The results will then be available in either August or December – depending on when the sample is submitted and researchers will be on hand to discuss the results and suggested steps to address the situation.