Get the Lead Out: Harmful Pipes in Cities

It is not present in the mountain streams, reservoirs, or water treatment plants, but it still may be lurking in many pipes in cities and residential spaces throughout the country that were built before 1950.

Although Denver Water has taken major steps to eliminate lead in the city’s drinking water, it is nearly impossible to target every existing lead pipe within households throughout the city. It would require excavating front and back yards leading up to Denver Water meters, and even  interior excavation if the source is not easily identified. Because this process is so intimate to the household space, the duty has fallen on the residential caretakers to test and evaluate the lead levels in their own personal drinking water. The issue many U.S. cities are facing is that residents are either uninformed or they wrongfully assume that their residence does not have lead piping. Denver Water has made strides in aiding customers in the regular testing of their water by giving out a free lead-testing kit to anyone who requests one, and then replacing any lead piping at no cost to the customer. Although the earth-shattering drinking water issues in Flint brought forth the lead scare in many cities in the past couple of years, this problem has been haunting Americans for more than a century.

Lead is one of the most dangerous neurotoxins known to man, causing health issues for Americans since the installation of lead water distribution pipes in the late Nineteenth Century. In 1900, more than seventy percent of the nation’s cities with populations greater than 30,000 residents established water distribution service lines through lead piping. Why would these early water piping pioneers choose lead over much cheaper substances such as iron or even copper to create these pipes? The answer seemed simple: lead lasts almost twice as long and is more pliable when crafting around existing structures. In the mind of lead manufacturers and public officials, the value of these pipes outweighed the potential health risks associated with their use.

In the 1920s many cities opted to halt the installation of lead pipes for water distribution. However, because the government did not federally mandate the movement and there was no concrete evidence against its use, installations continued. During this time, lead-skeptic physicians started to voice their unease, and a small sector of the medical community attempted to link the rise of lead poisoning in Americans to the growing underground network of lead pipes taking over the nation’s drinking water distribution. This “hunch” turned into a small battle with the Lead Industries Association (“LIA”) who was consistently pumping out positive propaganda in an effort to save face for the largest monetarily-valued asset of their industry: lead pipes for water service lines. The LIA and its backers dismissed the disputing physicians’ claims by alluding that the symptoms the lead poisoning victims faced, such as slowing growth in children, central nervous system defects, hearing problems, and even cancer, were actually scattered symptoms of similar diseases or sicknesses. They went further to state that lead poisoning tests were not well-developed and gave faulty results causing unnecessary fear.

It was not until the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 (“SWDA”) that the federal government decided there was indeed a concrete link between the poisoning and the pipes. This act mandated safe drinking water in general for the nation and handed the reigns over to the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) to set the standards. In 1986, the EPA passed a series of amendments, one of which prohibits the “use of any pipe or plumbing fitting or fixture, any solder, or any flux, after June 1986, in the installation or repair of (i) any public water system; or (ii) any plumbing in a residential or non-residential facility providing water for human consumption, that is not lead free.”

With these new regulations, government officials began to hold meetings to discuss what they would mean for their cities. Many cities established plans to either eliminate—or find alternatives to—lead piping for water distribution. Not all cities were equally concerned about the danger lead posed, or if they were, economic factors were of bigger concern. The cost to deal with the lead-pipe infrastructure would put a huge dent in neighborhood budgets, creating a risk of bankruptcy for local governments.  Many officials brushed aside the concerns of lead piping as a “want” for the city, rather than a “need.”

The new regulations soon came to the attention of another group of federal agencies, and in 1991 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) expressed their concern for lead poisoning. The CDC proposed lowering the level for individual intervention to fifteen micrograms per deciliter (“µg/dL”) and implementing lead-poisoning prevention campaigns in places where children had blood lead levels (“BLL”) greater than ten µg/dL.

This stance from the CDC caused the EPA to step up and play an even larger role in the lowering of BLLs. They did so by passing the Lead and Copper Rule (“LCR”) in 1991. This rule established requirements for corrosion control treatment; lead service line replacement, and public education. Despite the rule’s good intentions, the American Water Works Association (“AWWA”) brought suit against the EPA claiming it did not give proper notice for the updates. They also claimed that a public government agency did not have the authority to tear up private property to replace lead service lines. The AWWA prevailed in court and the LCR regulations were ruled unenforceable until the EPA properly submitted it with amendments and reasonable time limits. These amendments included many concessions, the most notable being the permission of partial pipe replacements.

Although the EPA passed the amendments in an effort to compromise and accommodate the monetary issues many cities faced with the complete removal of lead pipes, this type of repair proves to be an even larger issue than the pipes already contaminating water below the surface. As cities came to find out, partial pipe replacements allow for the resting lead sediments at the bottom of the pipes to be shaken up and then distributed into the consumer’s water supply, increasing lead sediment in water by a significant amount. Another form of partial repair involves connecting old lead pipes to new copper pipes using brass fittings. This quick-fix can accelerate galvanic corrosion, thus releasing an increased amount of lead into the service pipes. Partial replacements have become the unknown death sentence to many U.S. cities that utilize this money-saving method to “fix” the issues they have with rising BLLs.

Around this time local governments began scrambling to replace piping or come up with quick-fix alternatives to their original efforts in order to avoid sanctions from the EPA. Yet many cities also realized that the EPA only brought formal actions —compliance agreements, administrative orders with or without penalties, or enforcement actions in court — on ten percent of the violations in 2015. This reduced the motivational momentum that many local governments initially felt after the LCR was first introduced. As a result, many cities did not think twice about opting for cheaper partial replacements instead of complete system overhauls, despite the dramatic increase of health risks. The dangers of this cost-saving gamble backfired became all to clear with the Flint water crisis in 2014, where as many as 12,000 children were exposed to highly toxic levels of lead through drinking water.

On the other hand, one city in particular, Madison, Wisconsin, took the public’s good health to heart and replaced all of the city’s lead service pipes between 2001–2011. The city described the replacements as “noisy, messy, and disruptive, but successful.” Although the process was all of the above, the city’s actions dramatically reduced the risk of lead contamination in drinking water, and their residents have nothing to say about the decade of torturous upgrade but “thanks.”

Many other cities are still battling the EPA’s tighter restrictions. The most recent of these restrictions is the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act (“RLDWA”) established in 2011. This honed in on the definition of “lead-free” which was previously allowing “lead-free” items to be composed of eight percent lead. The EPA scaled this number back to 0.25 percent, and in that same act, they prohibited the use or introduction into commerce of “[P]ipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings or fixtures . . . used exclusively for non-potable services such as manufacturing, industrial processing, irrigation, outdoor watering, or any other uses where the water is not anticipated to be used for human consumption.” In 2013 the agency added fire hydrants to that list through the Community Fire Safety Act (“CFSA”).

Denver has more than 3,000 miles of water mains, and Denver Water crews install or replace an average of 60,000 feet of pipe per year. Each piping project is completely different because of the conditions at the project site, and it continues to be an arduous task to fully replace the city’s pipes inside and outside of the home. The long history of lead pipes contaminating cities’ drinking water proves that the replacement of pipes is an expensive and disruptive task for local and state governments. Unknowingly, American citizens are still drinking water with lead percentages unfit for human consumption. Today, the EPA, AWWA, and the CDC formally recognize the issue, and together they are taking small, but steady steps with local, city, and state governments for the ultimate removal of lead pipes in cities. These agencies continue to brainstorm ways to police cities and prevent BLLs from reaching levels above zero simply because of drinking water. 

Rebecca Spence

Image: The District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority replacing lead piping along Irving Street NW back in 2008. Flickr user IntangibleArts, Creative Commons.

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