Plumbum is the Latin word for lead. It’s also the root of the term, plumber. Part of President Biden’s infrastructure bill proposes to remove the last of our country’s lead pipes. But why do we have lead pipes anyway?
Did the use of lead pipes for drinking water cause the collapse of the Roman Empire? Although historians no longer believe that lead poisoning caused the Roman Empire's collapse, the Romans did have an extensive plumbing system upgraded about 2,200 years ago to include lead pipes. In the U.S. in the 1800s, cast iron pipes were used, but with the growth of cities came the need for more flexible piping to connect buildings to water mains. Lead became the perfect material for this task, and by the 1900s, most of the largest cities in the U.S. installed lead piping. Amazingly, many of these pipes are still in use today.
On March 31, President Biden released The American Jobs Plan, also known as the Infrastructure Bill. This $2.3 trillion plan is centered on fixing roads and bridges, expanding broadband internet access, and boosting research and development funding. However, it also contains a provision that calls for replacing 100% of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines, the connections from water mains to individual buildings and homes. While it is far from certain what the final Infrastructure Bill will contain, removing lead from pipes and service lines should have bi-partisan support and absolutely be included in the final Bill.
Lead’s Effect on Health
There is little dispute among scientists on the harmful effects of lead on children’s brain development and that there is no safe level of lead exposure in children. At high levels, lead can cause symptoms, including headaches, stomach pains, drowsiness, and convulsions. At low levels, as most often found in the U.S., lead can cause serious damage to children’s developing brains, resulting in cognitive impairment, including reading disabilities, effects on IQ, hyperactivity, and hearing and balance problems.
Who are Most at Risk?
Older housing in older cities and suburbs is more likely to have lead service lines than more recently constructed housing. This is a particular problem in low-income and minority communities. A study showed that African-American children were twice as likely to have blood lead levels greater than 2 micrograms/deciliter than White children.
What Action has been Taken to Remove Lead?
By the 1970s, lead was known to present a risk to human health, particularly to children. The three primary sources of lead in the U.S. were air, paint, and drinking water.
- Lead in Air: In 1975, unleaded gasoline became universally available in the U.S. On January 1, 1996, lead in gasoline was banned.
- Lead in Paint: In 1978, the Federal government banned all consumer uses of lead paint, but some states banned it years earlier.
- Lead in Drinking Water: Lead was used in drinking water pipes until the late 1980s. In 1991, the EPA issued a Treatment Technique regulation for lead in drinking water. This regulation did not require the removal of lead drinking water pipes but required water utilities to control the water's corrosivity.
The U.S. has moved toward removing lead from the environment in two of the three major sources, although there is still much work to remove lead paint from older buildings. Drinking water remains the only source where we have not taken significant lead removal action over the last 50 years.
Why? A Regulatory Tradeoff
There is a one-word answer to this question – Cost. It is costly to remove all the lead pipes in the U.S. Approximately 15 – 22 million Americans, 7% of homes are connected to community water systems with lead service lines. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimated in 2016 that it would cost $30 billion to remove the remaining lead service lines in the U.S. They estimated that 6.1 million lead service lines remained, but they were only being replaced at an average of 0.5% per year.
The EPA’s approach has been to allow the lead pipes to remain but to control the water's corrosivity. In simple terms, if the water chemistry is good, with a pH close to neutral, the lead does not leach from the pipes into the drinking water. The problem occurs when the water's pH is <6.5, more acidic, resulting in lead dissolving from the pipes into the water. The EPA has issued a treatment technique regulation that requires water systems to add specific chemicals to drinking water systems to control the corrosion of the pipes and subsequent leaching of lead from the pipes into our water.
This approach works most of the time. However, with 50,000 water utilities in the U.S., problems within a small number of utilities can have catastrophic consequences. This was demonstrated in Flint, Michigan, when water system operators failed to add the corrosion control chemicals, resulting in lead from their pipes delivered into people’s homes and drinking water. There have been other incidents of lead leaching from pipes into drinking water in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. The only sure way to limit lead exposure from drinking water is to remove the lead pipes and service lines.
The Infrastructure Bill
The Infrastructure Bill calls for removing all lead pipes and service lines by investing in two funds within the EPA providing financial support to water systems to provide clean water. This is a very focused and tangible task that would result in removing a toxic chemical that impacts children’s health. It is not enough to simply make sure this provision of the Bill is passed. Infrastructure programs typically take 5-10 years to implement. The removal of lead pipes and service lines should be addressed rapidly, and the funding pool should provide incentives to states to act quickly. For greater transparency, to the public funding this work and communities still affected by these pipes, the EPA should develop visible scorecards to highlight states and localities' progress, released quarterly.
Removing lead from drinking water is a tangible benefit to children, particularly in low-income and minority communities. It is way past time that the nation took action on lead’s devastating effects on children’s health. This should be a top priority for the EPA, not lost in time as other issues grab media and public attention.