Lead roofing and its modern replacements

Theft of lead flashings from roofs and concerns over the health and safety implications of working with the material generally has prompted the launch of lead-free solutions. Kevin Ley, technical manager of UK roofing manufacturer Redland, explores the issues.

Increasing concern over just how hazardous lead is, combined with the theft of lead products from roofs across the country, means architects are looking elsewhere when specifying solutions for roofs.

Theft of lead is an ongoing problem in the UK – it is spurred by a rise in the worldwide price of metals. Criminal gangs have targeted the roofs of churches, town halls, schools and charities.

According to figures cited by the insurance industry, the annual cost of these thefts stands at a staggering £50 million. A spate of thefts in the East Midlands, attributed to just one gang, caused more than £1 million of damage alone.

Thieves will often target lead flashings around chimneys and side abutment details, ripping off roof tiles and damaging the roof in the process. The problems this causes are obvious: leaking roofs, massive inconvenience to property owners and the cost of replacement work and materials.

However, it is not just the costs and disruption of replacing lead products from roofs which has prompted architects to start looking elsewhere when specifying roofing products. It is no secret that lead is a toxic material and therefore the health and safety implications of using it are enormous.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO):

“Lead is a toxic metal whose widespread use has caused extensive environmental contamination and health problems in many parts of the world.”

Because of the risks associated with lead, rigorous health and safety practices have to be deployed when such products are used. This causes an obvious headache for contractors, builders and property owners alike.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – Britain’s independent regulator for work-related health, safety and illness – warns that working with lead can affect your health. According to its official guidance on the matter, health problems can occur if somebody absorbs too much lead. The biggest risk of this happening is through breathing in lead dust, fume or vapour, or by it being swallowed.

Lead, which is usually stored in the bones, can remain undetected for years. Symptoms such as headaches, tiredness, irritability, constipation, nausea, stomach pains, anaemia or loss of weight can occur when the amount of lead in your body exceeds safe levels. And continued exposure can cause more serious problems including kidney damage, nerve and brain damage and infertility.

Building firms are required by law to manage the hazards and risk of lead by planning, managing and monitoring construction work so that it is undertaken safely and without any risks to the health of their employees. A legal duty is also imposed on them to cooperate with the property owner in order to manage the work and meet responsibilities for site safety.

This includes providing those who are likely to have significant exposure to lead with protective clothing. The level of lead in the air they are exposed to must also be measured and respiratory protective equipment may be required. It is recommended a doctor measures the level of lead in workers’ bodies while they are on site.

The HSE has recently fined a number of construction companies for falling short of their responsibilities and duty of care towards those working on building sites for them.

There are many measures that property owners and builders can follow when working with lead products in order to limit the damage and risks. But those onerous issues will not go away. Similarly, despite the fact the government has launched a crackdown on the wider problem of scrap metal theft by targeting dealers, the problem will never disappear. So there-fore prevention has to be better than a cure.

Specifying lead-free solutions will avoid all of these issues for both the property owner and the builder. Lead-free solutions also reduce the long-term leaching of lead into the water system and natural environment. We have seen responsible architects right across the country doing so on a regular basis.

Replacement solutions now exist that contain no lead, while offering the same look and weatherproofing qualities. These options currently available on the market are not only safe to handle but also cheaper and easier to install – providing a fitting modern method of construction.