What Does a Landlord Need to do About Lead Paint and Pipes?

By 9 min read • January 13, 2021
Two house painters in hazmat suits removing lead paint from an old house.

Lead is a heavy metal. It has the symbol Pb in the periodic table. The unique properties of lead – such as its resistance to corrosion and durability – mean this dense, malleable metal has had many applications over the centuries. 

The Romans used lead to construct water pipes that channelled water into Ancient Rome. They also sipped beverages from lead vessels, which was probably not great for their health. Prior to the 20th century, lead was used by artists to make white paint, it was added to hair-dye, textile treatments, and even sweeteners. During the Age of Enlightenment, lead was a common component of makeup. Fashionable ladies and gentlemen suffered all kinds of horrific side-effects in their pursuit of beauty, including inflamed eyes, blackened skin, hair loss, tooth loss, and an inflamed, scabbed décolletage.

As early as the 1860s, it became apparent that white lead was dangerous, and medical papers were published that highlighted the effects of lead poisoning in children. By the 1940s, leading industries and medical practitioners acknowledged the serious threat posed by lead in paint. It wasn’t until 1988 that lead paint was finally banned for consumer use in the UK. 

Lead use is still prevalent today, mostly in lead batteries for vehicles. It is also often found in paint pigments, crystal glassware, some cosmetics and ceramics.

As a landlord, you may not have given much thought to the dangers of lead when you purchased your rental property, but if the property was built before 1970, there is a chance lead is present in there somewhere. Read on for a guide to why lead is so dangerous, where it may be lurking in your rental property, and what you can do about it.

Why is Lead Exposure Hazardous?

Lead is a naturally occurring toxin and cumulative exposure to it can affect many systems in the body. It is particularly dangerous for babies and small children. 

Exposure to lead causes many serious health problems. After lead is ingested, it accumulates in vital organs, most notably the brain, liver, kidneys, and bones. When a pregnant woman has been exposed to lead, any lead stored in the bones is released into the bloodstream, which puts the foetus at risk.  

In the short-term, there will be no obvious symptoms, but in the long-term, lead poisoning can cause severe neurological symptoms. This includes behavioural problems, convulsions, coma, and even death. Lead exposure can also affect the reproductive system.

Young children are most vulnerable to the effects of lead exposure, as their bodies absorb lead much faster. Children from disadvantaged homes are more at risk because they are usually lacking in other vital minerals, which means their bodies absorb more lead. 

Symptoms of lead poisoning in children include:

  • Developmental delay
  • Abdominal pain
  • Weight loss
  • Hearing loss
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Pica – eating things that are not food, such as paint chips

The effects of lead poisoning are irreversible.

Is any Level of Exposure to Lead Safe?

There is no safe limit to the level of lead in the bloodstream. Even at very low levels, exposure to lead can cause damage to bodily systems, despite no obvious symptoms. 

The current standard for drinking water is <10mcg of lead per litre of water. Given the fact that the harmful effects of lead exposure are cumulative, it’s safer to ensure drinking water contains no lead whatsoever. Make sure all other sources of lead in the property are eliminated. 

Where is Lead Found?

Lead can be present in plumbing systems or paint.

Some older properties may still have lead piping in the indoor plumbing or the external supply pipe. When water is in contact with lead pipes, lead can leach into the water supply. This is more likely to happen when the pipe is damaged in some way, or the water is acidic (which may be the case if the water comes from a private well). 

Lead can also enter the property’s water via lead-lined water storage tanks, waste pipes, or lead solder joints on plumbing. 

Lead in the Plumbing System

Properties built or modernised since 1970 are unlikely to have lead plumbing, but properties built prior to this may still have lead pipework, either internally or externally.

How to Spot Lead in the Plumbing System

Most modern plumbing pipework is made from copper, PVC, or polyethylene. Check the water supply pipe where it enters the property and connects to the stop-tap. Lead pipes are a dull grey colour when unpainted and will make a dull, metallic sound if tapped with a metal object. Scrape a painted pipe with a coin and if it’s lead, a shiny metal surface will be revealed. 

Where a lead pipe is joined to the stop-tap or another pipe, the joint will look rounded and swollen. 

Lead solder may also have been used to connect copper pipes. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell whether solder is lead-based without testing it. If you are concerned, perhaps because the property is old or a dodgy plumber has worked on it, you can buy a lead check swab kit from Amazon for less than £40. If the swab turns red, lead is present. 

Some older properties have water storage tanks, from which the water is supplied to the kitchen. These are usually lead-lined and should be replaced so the water supply is connected to the mains instead. 

Lead was used to make radiators pre-1960, so if a property has any old radiators, check to make sure they are not made from lead. 

Testing for Lead in the Plumbing System

Home test kits can verify whether a property’s drinking water is contaminated by lead. These test kits are very sensitive and can pick up levels as low as 15ppb in a quantity of water large enough to fill a swimming pool.

Water companies will also test the water supply if there is a concern lead pipes are present in the external water supply pipework. If lead levels are above the legal limit, they will remove and replace any pipework beyond the boundary that connects the property to the public water mains, free of charge. 

Landlords are responsible for replacing pipework within the property boundary, i.e., beneath the garden and up to the fence/hedge and inside the property. 

The Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 2018

The Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 2018 details who is responsible for replacing lead pipes:

Replacement of lead pipes

30.—(1) The relevant supplier must modify or replace its part of a pipe where a relevant supplier—

(a)has received from the owner of premises to which water is so supplied notice in writing—

(i)of the owner’s intention to replace so much of the pipe as belongs to him; and

(ii)of his desire that the relevant supplier replaces the remainder of the pipe; and

(b)has reason to believe that water supplied by it for regulation 4(1) purposes from a pipe to which paragraph (2) applies contains, at the consumer’s tap, a concentration of lead which exceeds 10 μg/1.

(2) This paragraph applies to a pipe—

(a)of which the major component is lead;

(b)which is subject to water pressure from a water main or would be so subject but for the closing of some valve; and

(c)of which part belongs to a relevant supplier and of which the remainder belongs to the owner of any premises to which the relevant supplier supplies water for regulation 4(1) purposes.

The Lead Replacement Scheme

The Lead Replacement Scheme is designed to help reduce the lead content in drinking water. Under the scheme, a new water supply will be installed and the main supply pipe to the property’s boundary replaced. 

If your water supply pipe is lead, submit an application to your local water authority:

  • Severn Trent
  • Anglian Water
  • Yorkshire Water
  • South Staffs Water
  • United Utilities
  • Scottish Water
  • Dwr Cymru

Lead pipe replacement work must be carried out by an approved plumber if the water is on a shared supply. If the property has a single supply, you can hire any plumber, but it is recommended that they are members of the WaterMark, TAPS, WIAPS, or Aplus boards. 

New pipework must comply with the Water Supply Regulations 1999.

Once the pipework has been replaced, the water authority will verify the work has been completed to the required standard. They will then replace their pipes and reconnect the property to the mains water supply. Note that it can take up to 90 days to get permission from the council if a road closure is needed to carry out the work.  

Be aware that carrying out invasive works on your water supply pipes may affect the pipes belonging to neighbouring properties. It is a good idea to let the neighbours know before contractors start digging up the road. 

Lead Paint

Lead paint is most likely to have been used in properties built before 1960. Back then, lead was added to paint for woodwork, doors, and windows, to help it dry quicker. Newer properties and those that have been extensively renovated and modernised are unlikely to have any lead paintwork remaining. If you buy an older property, especially one that has not been refurbished, it’s worth checking the woodwork for signs of original paint. 

Be aware that lead from flaking external paintwork in an older building can lead to contamination of the soil surrounding the property. This is equally applicable to residential and commercial properties. Lead in the soil is a concern for children, who like to play in the dirt and may put their hands in their mouth. It’s also a concern for pets, who are just as vulnerable to lead poisoning.

How to Tell if There is Lead Paint in a Rental Property 

Most people add new coats of paint to existing ones. Unless a skirting board, architrave, or door is replaced, chances are, there will be a few original layers of paint lurking beneath shiny new gloss paint. 

Look at the paintwork in your property. If there are still original features, such as skirting boards, door frames, and stair spindles, examine the paintwork closely. Thick paintwork indicates many years of paint have been allowed to build up. That in itself is not a problem unless the paintwork is in a poor condition. 

When paintwork is in a good condition and you have no plans to renovate the property aside from adding a fresh coat of paint, there probably won’t be an issue. But if your tenants are keen to do a spot of decorating or they have kids and/or pets, it is sensible to err on the side of caution and deal with the issue now.

Check exterior paint too. Red lead paint was often used as a primer on cast-iron pipes outside a property, as it helped to prevent corrosion. If your property still has cast-iron downpipes and a waste pipe, chances are high they have been primed with lead paint. 

Is Lead Paintwork a Risk to Tenants?

Lead paintwork is usually only an issue to tenants when it’s damaged in some way. If paintwork containing lead is scratched, scraped, or is flaking off, it can release lead into the atmosphere or be ingested by young children or pets. As we have already discussed, lead is particularly dangerous when released to younger children and pregnant women, so this is not a risk worth taking.

Be aware that pets often scratch the paintwork on doors and may chew other areas of the woodwork if left home alone. Children play with toys and skirting boards and doors may be scuffed and scratched, causing the paint to chip off. 

How to deal with Lead Paintwork

When paintwork is in good condition, it can be sealed with a fresh coat of non-lead-based paint, i.e., any modern paints these days. Paintwork that isn’t in good condition is best removed. 

The best and safest way to strip lead paint is by using a commercial paint stripper formulation. Paint strippers work by breaking the bond between the paint and the surface it is adhered to. Most work very quickly, removing multiple layers of paint in one application, and are available as a paste or gel. Some are even non-caustic and environmentally friendly, which makes them more pleasant to work with. 

Another option is to pay a contractor to remove all traces of lead-based paint from the property. It will cost you more than doing it yourself, but in a larger property, saving time might be an important consideration. 

This review offers a useful comparison of 10 paint stripper products. 

Safety Tips for Removing Lead Paint

  • Always follow the instructions carefully and protect your hands and face with gloves and a face mask. 
  • Cover surfaces in the room to prevent contamination.
  • Place all materials covered in paint residue in a sealed plastic bag and throw them in the general household waste bin.
  • Wash yourself and any clothing you have been wearing.
  • Clean the room you have worked in thoroughly, wiping down surfaces with a mix of dishwasher detergent and water.
  • If there is a lot of dust, remove it with an industrial vacuum cleaner complying with BS 5415.

The Law and Lead

Lead is classed as a pollutant and is one of 29 hazards in the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS), along with asbestos and radon gas. The HHSRS determines whether a home is suitable for people to live in, as per the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018. 

Hazards are assessed according to the severity of the problem, Category 1 being the most serious.

If a landlord fails to take action when a problem is identified, tenants can sue for breach of contract. Depending on the severity of the problem, the court may rule the property is not fit for human habitation. The landlord may then be made to pay compensation and/or made to carry out the necessary improvement works. 

In addition to a tenant taking legal action, the local authority can also take independent legal action and levy fines. 

Check for Lead Before Buying an Older Investment Property

It is important to pay attention to the possible presence of lead when purchasing an investment property. Any older property in need of renovation is likely to have lead paint and/or lead in the plumbing system. If you ignore the dangers, the health of your tenants – and yours if you decide to carry out the renovations – could be adversely affected.

Make enquiries about lead when buying an older or listed property that hasn’t been renovated in some time. It is worth paying for a lead survey from a professional lead testing company; they will test for lead paint on your behalf. The cost of a lead paint survey is similar to that of any other residential survey.

As already discussed, a simple water testing kit bought online can verify the presence of lead traces in the property’s drinking water.

After reading this guide, you should be fully aware of the risks associate with lead. Given that much of the housing stock in the private rental sector was constructed pre-1970, lead is likely to be an issue for many landlords. If you suspect a rental property you are thinking of buying or already own contains lead, either in the plumbing system or in old paint, take remedial action immediately. The health of your tenants is at stake here.

Have you had to deal with lead in a rental property? If so, how did you address the problem? Let us know via Twitter or Facebook. 

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