With state and federal building authorities rushing to mandate lead-free plumbing products, one of Australia’s oldest tapware manufacturers, Enware Australia has warned of the serious health risks that could result from such a move as it could increase bacterial contamination in water supplies.

Following the detection of traces of lead in drinking water supplies at the Perth Children’s Hospital as well as in public drinking fountains in Geelong and Warrnambool in Victoria, there was growing concern about the risk of lead dissolving into drinking water from brass plumbing products. This led to the Victorian School Building Authority requiring all new schools and school upgrade works to exclude any plumbing product containing lead. It also meant that brass and copper alloy products would be ditched in favour of other materials.

As an 80-year-old specialist plumbing and personal safety equipment manufacturer and supplier, the Sydney-based Enware has said the move to stainless steel plumbing products could have unintended health risks from bacteria that could easily adhere to such systems.

Calling for a less emotive and more scientific approach, Enware chief executive Vicki Edler said, “There is no denying if we can take lead out of the system that is going to have health benefits, but it must be done with a thoughtful, measured approach.”

According to Edler, existing brass and copper alloy products also showed inherent antibacterial qualities that were not necessarily present in alternatives. Therefore, products should not be considered fit-for-purpose merely on the basis of their low-lead content.

However, resellers and manufacturers are already moving to manufacturing or importing stainless steel tapware products that may not even meet Australian standards.

“We have avoided going down that path. It doesn’t feel right to be moving down that path if we are concerned about the unintended consequences,’’ Edler said.

The Australian Building Codes Board, which oversees the compliance framework for both the building and plumbing industries, is working on a regulatory impact statement that will examine options to tackle the issue of lead in drinking water. The statement will be available for public comment at the end of the year and is expected to be legislated some time in 2021 in the new national construction code.

The Board has reviewed both the US and European Union approaches, as well as the findings of Professor Mark Taylor from the Macquarie University who was commissioned two years ago to explore the impacts of lead in plumbing products and materials.

Though Professor Taylor recommended the use of low-lead or lead-free plumbing components during the installation of drinking water systems in order to limit the release of lead into drinking water, an Enware-commissioned study at the University of Wollongong found that bacteria could easily adhere to stainless steel surfaces.

“It is important to consider its use in systems, products in the plumbing industry that act as conduits for bacterial contamination, leading to serious health risks,’’ one study said.

“The identification of other materials such as brass or polymers... show bacterial resistant properties could provide alternative solutions.”

Various studies have also come to the conclusion that the move to legislate for the replacement of lead containing brass fittings could be hasty and not based on a comprehensive investigation and analysis of the underlying issues relating to lead levels in Australia.

“As a company, we are not wedded to brass. If there is a product that is safe and compliant, we are happy to move to that material,’’ Edler said.

Enware regulatory affairs manager Nathan Spinner said the company wanted the opportunity to properly review its supply chains ahead of any changes.

“We want to work towards a national framework, which will move from the materials specification we have now to a new framework,’’ he said.

The nation’s biggest bathroom products manufacturer, Reece said a strict compliance framework should accompany any ­direction around industry changes.

“We fully support industry changes that address the public’s concerns of lead in drinking water. This is a complex but critical issue, and we are confident in the approach that the Australian Building Codes Board has adopted to navigate the many challenges,’’ said Reece chief executive Peter Wilson.

“This national approach will ensure that we get the right outcome from a health perspective that is safeguarded by a functional Australian Standards compliance program.”

Image Credit: CEO of Enware Vicki Edler (Photo by Britta Campion)