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Tuesday, 9 May, 2000, 21:33 GMT 22:33 UK
Transcript: Poison on Tap
Tap graphic
This is the full transcript of Frontline Scotland's Poison on Tap, broadcast on Tuesday, 9 May.


Reporter, Jane Franchi: It should be your pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Your family's brand new dream home. A dream come true.

The last thing you expect is that in real like it becomes a nightmare.

Catherine Fyfe: We had no conception that anything like this would go wrong in a brand new house.

Peter McGee: There's no checks on it. Nobody is doing anything about it and people are getting away with what they want.

Michael Fyfe: It was a dream home, and we were delighted when we moved in and everything else, and it just left a bitter taste.

Reporter: A hazard could be affecting hundreds of new homes across Scotland - lead in the water.

Contaminated drinking water - the ever present threat in the tenements of Glasgow's past - were supposed, like those tenements, to have been consigned to the history books.

Water authorities, councils, and householders have spent millions replacing the lead pipes which used to carry water into homes. There'll be no lead pipes in new houses like these. They're not allowed.

But it's in new estates that high levels of lead have been found in the water. The Calder Gardens estate, Uddingston. The Fyfe's moved into their Tilbury Douglas home just before Christmas 1998.

Mr Fyfe: It's a detached house, we've got a property to ourselves, it was a kind of dream home, and we've also kind of worked hard to get to this stage.

Mrs Fyfe: I knew right away I wanted this house. I just walked in and the carpets had just been laid that day practically, and we came in and Brandon just kind of went wow¿.this house is big.

Reporter: Brandon was just two then. It was he who showed the first signs that something was far wrong with the Fyfe's dream home.

Mr Fyfe: He'd always been an active wee boy, he was always into something, just a normal young lad I would say, always up to mischief and the usual. But eh, into that time he started becoming really nauseous and tired, and not wanting to play, very anaemic, sore heads, sick, every night sort of thing, and it was constant, it wasn't getting any better.

Mrs Fyfe:: He had terrible stomach cramps, and we actually had him in bed with us every night because we were so worried, we didn't want to leave him himself because he was just being sick constantly.

He was at the doctor practically every day, we had him at the doctor's and tried different antibiotics, tried different tests and things on him.

Reporter: But none of them established what was wrong with Brandon. By now Michael and Catherine were also feeling unwell, although Catherine put her own nausea down to morning sickness. It was Brandon who was giving real cause for concern.

Mrs Fyfe: We changed everything, we changed his toothpaste, didn't we, we changed his toothbrush, we tried different drinks with him. Nothing worked. We were getting desperate.

Mr Fyfe: We tried thinking basically what he done that we didn't, and after I don't know how many hours Catherine sort of said to me what about the water, because she had mentioned that before. And the only thing we could come up with that he done that we didn't was used the tap in the en-suite toilet upstairs.

Mrs Fyfe: We'd kind of made that into Brandon's bathroom. Michael had made him a wee step up to the sink and he had a wee routine at night with his dad, he went in and brushed his teeth, and in the morning he brushed his teeth downstairs after his breakfast and things.

He was more seriously ill at night, which led us to think it must be that particular tap. I stopped him using it that night and the sickness stopped that night.

Reporter: Catherine contacted West of Scotland Water and Glasgow's Environmental Health Department. They both took samples. The former from the kitchen sink, the latter from the en-suite wash basin.

A week later Environmental Health phoned. There was no problem. Catherine checked with West of Scotland Water to see if anything had shown up in their samples. She was told there was no bacteria in the water. They continued to drink it.

Mrs Fyfe: Ten days later I got a phone call out of the blue. 'There's very high lead levels in your water, don't drink the water'.

Reporter: The maximum legal limit is 50 micrograms of lead per litre of water. The level in the Fyfe's en-suite wash hand basin was seven and a half times that - 382 micrograms. And Brandon had been brushing his teeth there every night. Over the next few weeks subsequent testing by Environmental Health revealed even higher levels.

Mrs Fyfe: We were furious, weren't we¿

Mr Fyfe: Ehem

Mrs Fyfe: ..we were..I was stunned, I didn't know what to do. The man from West of Scotland Water came down and said: 'By the way, I've spoken to the chemist involved in this case, you really have to see your doctor.' And it was just like a bombshell, wasn't it¿..

Mr Fyfe: Ehem.

Reporter: The family went for health checks. The Institute of Occupational Medicine said that Michael's symptoms were consistent with acute lead poisoning. Confirmed by an increased level of lead in his blood. Blood tests done by the Institute six months later still shows signs of significant lead exposure.

Mr Fyfe: Our first reaction was panic, if my family was going to be OK, and followed by a lot of anger.

Reporter: Children are particularly at risk from lead contamination. According to Jack Beattie at Yorkhill Hospital in Glasgow, its full effects still aren't known, and the symptoms can easily mislead.

Dr Jack Beattie (Consultant Paediatrician): Lead poisons the body by inhibiting natural chemicals which keep the body chemistry ticking over. We're talking very subtle symptoms. Things like tummy pains, perhaps headaches, irritability, mild behavioural upsets. Things which children get all the time for all kinds of other reasons. So it's very difficult clinically to say this child's got lead poisoning and this child hasn't.

Reporter: On the other side of Glasgow, Robroyston, another new estate, another young family who, coincidentally, had moved into their brand new Bryant home at the same time as the Fyfes had moved into Uddingston. It had been a dream home for them McGees too. Until last September.

Veronica McGee: We first found out about the water problem from a neighbour who had got their water checked with the Environmental Health of a random check. And she notified us that there was a high level of lead in her water when the results came back.

I was very worried at the fact that I just had a new baby I the house, a matter of months old and I was bottle feeding her. I did ask the Environmental Health if I was helping the problem, obviously I boiled the water before giving it to the baby.

But he told me that it wasn't boiled out of the water like a bacteria is. And then we decided off our own back to phone the Environmental Health and ask them could they come and check our water because we had two young kids in the house.

Peter McGee: The lead levels were 1920 micros per litre.

Reporter: The cold water in an upstairs wash hand basin contained almost forty times more lead than the legal limit of 50 micrograms per litre.

Even that is considered to be high for complete safety. It comes down to 25 in three years time, and eventually it's being reduced to ten. But by any standards the lead levels were enormous.

Mrs McGee: Your imagination actually starts running wild because you don't know the dangers that's involved. You don't know how much at risk you're putting the kids, you start getting paranoid. You start getting really anxious about it, stopping them brushing their teeth and things like that, that you're neglecting health in other ways.

Reporter: A worrying time for the McGees. And across in Uddingston for the Fyfes as they wonder whether baby Morgan was harmed during pregnancy, and whether Brandon will suffer long-term health problems.

Mr Fyfe: We've been told as well by doctors that they don't know, or can't tell us, if there's any lasting effects from lead poisoning. We're more concerned for Brandon, because he was so sick in the beginning with the lead poisoning. So we don't know if it can have an effect on him years down the line.

Mrs Fyfe: He's still undergoing tests, isn't he¿.

Mr Fyfe: Yes¿

Mrs Fyfe: He was at the doctor's in fact on Monday¿

Mr Fyfe: And every time he's sick you wonder if it's something to do with that or¿.

Mrs Fyfe: He's still very¿..he's never been the same¿but everyone comments on how pale Brandon is.

Reporter: Research over years in America and Europe has shown that increased levels of lead can have long-term effects.

Dr Beattie: The main issue for us is that it may effect brain development. Children, because their brains are growing and developing and the brain cells are also getting themselves organised in early childhood, they're at risk of being damaged. And so for us as paediatricians we're concerned about that process.

These children might develop upsets in the development process intellectually and in other ways.

Reporter: Do we know this for sure?

Dr Beattie: We're sure that they have a risk. The problem is that we know¿.we confirm from the past that if you looked at groups of children who were exposed to lead and compared them to children who were not exposed to lead, the lead exposed children did less well intellectually, did less well at school, had more behavioural problems.

However, when we try to look at individual children it's much more difficult to say that child must be damaged.

Reporter: But what nobody could apparently work out was where the damage was coming from in the Fyfe's brand new house. Clearly not from lead pipes, there aren't any.

Mrs Fyfe: No one was taking me seriously. It was just like speaking to a brick wall. They didn't want to know. They were all blaming each other. Tilbury Douglas blamed the Environmental Health; the Environmental Health blamed the Water Board, who blamed Tilbury Douglas.

It was like a circle. No one would take responsibility. The Water Board said that the water was fine coming into the house. Tilbury Douglas didn't accept that, they were adamant it was coming from the reservoir, or wherever the water is piped from.

That's why the Water Board dug up the driveway and tested the water as it comes in the house, and it was fine, running clear.

Reporter: Running clear there, but not from the Fyfe's taps. Eventually there was a visit from the builders.

Mr Fyfe: I think it was about a week later the site agent came to see us.

Mrs Fyfe: It was, yes, he came down and¿¿

Mr Fyfe: ¿..and he told us that they'd investigated it and discovered that it was the plumbing company that they had used to install the pipes in here, that were at fault, and that, yes, the pipes were contaminated by lead because they had used a lead-based solder.

Reporter: Solder is melted and used to seal joints on pipes. There's leaded, and non-leaded. It's illegal to use leaded solder on domestic water pipes.

It was made illegal in 1989 following research done nearly a decade earlier. It found that the effects of leaded solder on copper pipe was potentially more dangerous than lead pipes themselves. It was Doctor Roger Oliphant who warned them that the reaction between the two metals caused the lead in solder to corrode.

Dr Roger Oliphant (Water Research Centre): It was mainly a laboratory study to try and determine under what conditions you could get significant contamination problems. And what this showed was that it was quite easy to get contamination problems. You didn't leave very much in the way of solder exposed in the.... of the tube to get quite significant levels.

Reporter: The law is clear. Non-leaded solder must be used for water pipes. But leaded solder can still be used for central heating systems. So plumbers frequently carry both. And there are financial temptations to use the leaded variety illegally. For a start it's cheaper. But perhaps more significantly it's easier and quicker to use. The plumbing job gets done in less time.

Dr Oliphant: In our research we estimated that it would increase the cost of a plumbing system by about twenty per cent if you used non-leaded solders. But, you know, that increase as ¿compared to the cost of the house was quite negligible.

Reporter: It may be quite negligible to the house buyer, it may not be to the plumber if that plumber has got a contract for say twenty/thirty houses.

Dr Oliphant: Well, well indeed, yes.

Reporter: At Calder Gardens the plumbing work in all the houses had been done by the same firm. Inevitably the Fyfes' home wasn't going to be the only one affected.

Mrs Fyfe: They didn't know how many other houses he had worked in, and it was really at that point that they started to consider other houses in the estate, and they did a mass testing of everyone, and obviously there was chaos ensued on the whole estate.

Reporter: But from that chaos it emerged that in three quarters of the Tilbury Douglas houses in Calder Gardens lead levels were over the legal limit. The homeowners concerned were offered blood tests.

The Fyfes were the only family to show increased levels of lead in their blood. The case rang serious alarm bells with Greater Glasgow Health Board. They decided on a random survey of other builders' new houses. The results were damning. One in four new homes had lead levels over the legal limit.

Dr Helene Irvine (Greater Glasgow Health Board): We were alarmed that in a brand new complex so many of the houses were failing in terms of complying with the significant medical risk value that we accept in the United Kingdom, which is 50 micrograms per litre.

You do tend to expect that in a brand new house the lead in the water should be under 10 micrograms per litre. And it didn't beg the question how many other brand new houses in Scotland might be affected.

Reporter: And it begs the question of whether the McGees' house in Robroyston may be one of them. One thing they make certain of - their four year old daughter, Leah, is allowed to drink only bottled water.

Mr McGee: Initially I thought it was from the water mains, which I then contacted the West of Scotland Water Authority, and they assured me that their incoming supply was fine, there was no problem with it.

And it was then they told me that possibly the plumbers, when they were doing the house, they've got two types of solder, lead and lead-free. They use the lead on heating systems, and the lead-free on the drinking system.

And they says just possibly the plumber just picked up a piece of solder and soldered all his joints with the one piece, and it is then contaminating all the water.

Reporter: The McGees' solicitor contacted Bryant Homes. The company's reply last December said they were trying to establish the cause of the problem which they described as a complex and time-consuming exercise.

So we sought expert advice on just how complex and time-consuming the exercise is. Tony Brunton is a trouble-shooter for the Institute of Plumbing, who call him in to investigate contamination problems. We called him in to investigate the complexity of establishing the presence of lead in solder.

Tony Brunton (Institute of Plumbing): This is a qualitative test, and that means that it shows that lead is present, but it doesn't determine how much.

So what we do is we take some distilled water, and we wet the paper, and then we apply the paper, and we know this to be lead solder because we know it was when we used it. We hold it firmly on, and if there is a reaction, if we get a change in colour then we know that lead is present.

Reporter: Ah, that complex and time-consuming. We asked Tony Brunton to check the McGees' pipes.

Mr Brunton: So if it is leaded solder this thing'll just go pink immediately, and eh¿.¿.and there you see we've got almost instantaneous colour reaction which would indicate that there's a high quantity of lead in the solder.

Mrs McGee: I'm really angry at the fact the builders have actually got away with doing this. It's really just confirming the worries that we've had for the last six months anyway. I'm just totally shocked that they can just walk away from this and not take responsibility so far anyway.

Reporter: In a statement to us Bryant Homes say all their contractors have been reminded that leaded solder is illegal. They've offered to replace offending pipework in the McGees' upstairs wash hand basin.

And as a result of our revelations have said they'll be investigating pipes elsewhere in the house.

Mr McGee: I want this house stripped of all contaminated copper and replumbed. I want nothing less. For the safety of my children, my wife and myself, it's a lot big issue to us here.

Reporter: Family health is a big issue for most of us, so we conducted a random survey of our own. We asked the owners of 95 new houses across the west of Scotland to take a sample of their water first thing in the morning after it had been lying in the pipes overnight.

We took those samples to acknowledged experts, Glasgow's Scientific Services, for analysis. The results make grim reading. Ten homes had levels over the legal limit of 50 micrograms per litre. Different estates, different builders, different plumbers, but obviously a widespread use of the illegal leaded solder.

Dr Oliphant: That's almost an achievement in itself really, it's a terrible result really. I don't even know of previous studies where that level of problem has been found. Em, as part of our work we'd actually did a literature survey and was looking at world-wide where they had problems, and that's a very, very high level of problem.

I thought this was a problem that had been solved, it was a problem in the past. So when it re-occurs it's all very disappointing. You think, you know, why did we do the work? If we can't learn from our mistakes then we'll never go forward.

Reporter: Disappointment for Roger Oliphant, a shock for the people living in those dream homes, especially after Tony Brunton tested for leaded solder.

Male resident: I mean these are definitely the kind of things that I wouldn't know to look for, and the health implications are very serious, I stay here by myself so the water in the pipes tend to stay there much longer, which means that the levels get even higher.

Second male resident: Sheer laziness¿.just¿.it shouldn't be happening.

Mr Brunton: And you can see from the very short time elapse we've got a colour change in the paper.

Female: You just assume because it's new that it complies to all the regulations and everything is safe.

Reporter: We informed all the home owners of the test result, and with Tony Brunton revisited five of them to establish whether lead solder was present.

Mr Brunton: Well unfortunately we didn't find one single negative result. They were all positive. We found lead solder in all the houses we examined today.

I feel quite disappointed. I mean at the end of the day lead is a banned substance. We have a by-law which said you shouldn't use it and yet here people are using it in quantity.

Reporter: A banned substance, a banned practise. So presumably is they're using it, breaking the law, they'll be prosecuted. Nobody can recall any such prosecution ever. It is a criminal offence, but it is, apparently, almost impossible to prove because of having to pinpoint the exact date of the offence for the Procurator Fiscal.

Jarvis McFadzean (West of Scotland Water): Well at present within the by-laws of what's known as the 'six month rule' between when the offence actually took place and the discovery of the offence. That is the rules within which we operate.

Reporter: So they would need to know precisely on precisely which date the plumber applied the lead solder in order to bring an action against the company?

Jarvis McFadzean: That would appear how the Procurator actually looks at such a case to actually determine that.

Reporter: The pluming firm involved in the Calder Gardens estate was referred to the Procurator Fiscal who decided against prosecution. The company - Worthingway - is one of the biggest plumbing businesses in Scotland.

Ian Ball (Worthingway Ltd): Basically there's two solders, they produce lead-free solder for use on the water system in the house, and they supply leader solder for use on heating systems. One of our operatives used the wrong solder on the water side.

Reporter: Why did they do that?

Mr Ball: Error.

Reporter: Straight error?

Mr Ball: They didn't do their job properly obviously. He was in error. Whether it was a simple way out, or whether it was they just couldn't be bothered to go and check the right product, but it was basically human error.

Reporter: So they had been using the leaded solder on say the central heating system, would that be right, and then hadn't bothered to change to the non-leaded solder for the rest of it?

Mr Ball: Hadn't bothered is probably a little strong. What would have happened, and we are interviewing a lot of our people, if they were running or run out of the unleaded solder and the leaded was handy to finish the little job they were doing, and that's where we've isolated a lot of the problems¿..finished part of that stretch¿.

Reporter: So it was to get the job done in a hurry?

Mr Ball: Unfortunately, yes.

Reporter: How many of your employees were involved in that?

Mr Ball: On that site, two.

Reporter: So did all the houses on that estate get their pipework checked?

Mr Ball: Approximately 26 from memory¿.

Reporter: Of how many?

Mr Ball: Every house was checked. We changed or did work in about 26 out of, I think, 32.

Reporter: And why wasn't it done on the others?

Mr Ball: They were quite happy that there was no problem.

Jan: What has happened to those two plumbers?

Mr Ball: They're still employed by the company. We're retrained them, and em, ensured that it won't happen again.

Reporter: Were they reprimanded?

Mr Ball: Of course.

Reporter: Did they realise what they were doing?

Mr Ball: No, they didn't see that it would have caused such a problem.

Reporter: You've told us the steps you took with the two plumbers concerned. What else has the company done as a company to try and prevent this sort of thing happening again?

Mr Ball: As a company we have banned the use of leaded products, leaded solder in this company.

Reporter: At all?

Mr Ball: Altogether on all systems. So the problem cannot arise again in this company. We also take random tests of water sampling in new houses that we produce. We intend to do that on a six monthly basis. Send them for analysis and make sure there's absolutely no problem.

Reporter: It's been suggested to us that isn't just a localised problem, that it is much, much more widespread that than, possibly across Scotland, possibly even across the UK. Do you think that's a likelihood?

Mr Ball: I think given the fact we've had a problem in Uddingston I would think it would not be just Worthingway, and I think it would not be just be two plumbers I had. I think that is a potential possibility, but I can't comment really. I don't know.

Reporter: But given the results of our own random survey, and that of Greater Glasgow Health Board it's clear that Worthingway were by no means alone in illegally using leaded solder. And when you think that 19,000 new homes are built in Scotland each year the scale of the problem could be enormous.

Dr Irvine: I think it's probably much more widespread. We don't have any reason to suggest that it's simply a Glasgow problem. But here we have evidence that many different plumbing contractors, and many different builders are involved with this problem.

And we know that these plumbing contractors and builders work across the country. So there's no reason to think that only when they work in Glasgow are they more likely to use leaded solder.

Reporter: Like the Plumbers Federation Helene Irvine wants leaded solder to be banned so the financial temptations of using it are taken out of the equation. Germany and Holland banned it more than twenty years ago.

The UK Government committed itself to a ban back in 1992, but as yet hasn't done so. The Scottish Executive promised a nation-wide survey after the Calder Gardens scandal. It still hasn't happened.

Dr Irvine: What we need to do is protect the individual buyer of a house from buying a house with this problem, because he then is landed with the problem. After the plumbing is installed six months after that the plumber and the builder are exempt from prosecution.

So it seems to me reasonable to try and reduce the chances of that happening by requiring that water can be tested for lead in preparation for a completion certificate.

Reporter: So what you're talking about then would be a guarantee to a home owner there is no lead in your water supply?

Dr Irvine:Well it would be the closest thing to ensuring that people don't buy a house that has a completion certification on it that has leaded solder in the joints.

Reporter: it's the sort of guarantee most of the householders we spoke to would like to see. As well as the worries about their families' health there's concern over who pays for any replumbing.

To them it seems incredible that in the 21st century in a brand new house there is still no guarantee of uncontaminated water. For the McGees it's been a rude awakening in their dream home.

Mrs Mcgee: We knew there was a problem years ago with lead in older properties¿.

Mr McGee: ...in the tenements...

Mrs McGee: We never thought that we would actually experience it buying a new house. We thought everything would have been more up to date than older tenements in the area.

Reporter: In Calder Gardens the Fyfes were among those whose pipes were replaced when the leaded solder was discovered. They still don't really know why Brandon isn't the lively boy he used to be, not whether baby Morgan has been affected. The Fyfes are considering legal action. Persimmon, who now own Tilbury Douglas Scotland, say that only lead-free fittings will be used by plumbers in their houses.

A big question mark remains, though, over how many people across the country are living in homes where leaded solder has been used, and who are still unaware of it.

Mr Fyfe: If we hadn't sat down ourselves and tried to work out what the problem was, and Catherine hadn't come up with the idea that it might have been the en-suite toilet, we would never have known. And we never have known, and we would still be drinking lead contaminated water years down the line.

Mrs Fyfe: Yeh.

Mr Fyfe: And if had that severe an effect on my wee boy and myself over a short period of time, what would the damage have been after a long period, a couple of years, ten years, we don't know. We would never have known.

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