Lead poisoning

Lead poisoning can occur when lead enters the body. In most cases it's small amounts of lead consumed over time that build up and cause health problems.

Causes of lead poisoning

Most people's risk of lead poisoning is very small as nowadays lead generally isn't used in paints, petrol or food containers. This has resulted in a very low exposure to lead for the majority of people. However, one of the main potential risks can be through drinking tap water if your property has lead pipes, a lead water tank or pipework with lead fittings. In a small number of cases this can result in lead contaminating the water supply.


Exposure to lead can be harmful especially to unborn babies and young children. Children absorb more lead than adults due to their growing bones and other organs which lead can become deposited in.

The signs and symptoms in young children can include:

  • irritability and fatigue
  • loss of appetite and weight loss
  • abdominal pain
  • vomiting
  • constipation
  • hearing loss
  • developmental delay and learning difficulties

Although children are at increased risk of the effects of lead poisoning, exposure via drinking contaminated water can also result in illness in adults. Even if you are experiencing these symptoms, it does not always mean you have lead poisoning.

Symptoms in adults can include:

If your property has lead pipes and you or your children are experiencing any of these symptoms, contact your GP.

Preventing lead poisoning

Not all houses have lead pipes. If your house was built before 1970 then there may be a small chance the pipe which connects your property to the water main in the street is made of lead. 

Find out if your property has lead pipes. There are a few places you can check including under the kitchen sink and at the internal stop tap, usually found where your water supply enters your home.

Look out for:

  • unpainted lead pipes are dull grey and have rounded swollen joints where they join other pipes
  • lead pipes are soft and if gently scraped you will see the shiny, silver-coloured metal appear underneath
  • tapping a lead pipe with a metal object will produce a dull thud rather than the clear ringing sound produced by copper or iron pipes

If these checks suggest there is lead pipework, contact the Scottish Water helpline on 0800 0778778 to organise a water sample to be taken from your property free of charge.

If you have a private water supply there will be a small charge for testing a sample. If you are concerned you may have lead pipework then you can arrange to have a sample taken of your water by contacting the environmental health department at your local council.

Most water samples tested will contain below the legal limit of lead providing reassurance that no further action is required. However, if your supply is found to contain a higher level of lead than this, you will be contacted by your local authority or Scottish Water to ensure steps are taken to reduce and control the levels of lead detected. You may be advised to stop drinking your tap water until investigation of the source of the lead is completed and remedial measures are taken.

Further information

Further information can be found on the Scottish Water website.

The Drinking Water Quality Regulator for Scotland website has more information about lead in drinking water including private water supplies.

Local council Environmental Health Officers have an awareness of private water supplies in their areas. You can find contact details for your local council through the CoSLA website.

If you are a tenant and need advice for your rented property, Citizens Advice Scotland may be able to help.

Last updated:
29 May 2023