Many different sources of pollutants such as pesticides, herbicides, excess nitrogen from fertilizers, industrial wastewater, and sewage continue to impact our supply of fresh water. One of the more insidious pollutants is lead. Lead can enter drinking water when service pipes that contain lead corrode, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content that corrodes pipes and fixtures.
Young children, infants, and fetuses are particularly vulnerable to lead because the physical and behavioral effects of lead occur at lower exposure levels in children than in adults per the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). A dose of lead that would have little effect on an adult can have a significant effect on a child. In children, low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells. (See https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/lead/health.html.)
Up to ten million homes across the country get water through lead pipes – called lead service lines – that connect the main drinking water line in the street to our homes. Corrosion control can help manage the risk of lead in water, but the only effective long-term fix is getting rid of the lead pipes. We need a strategy that addresses the root causes of lead exposure before a crisis hits, not after it.
The serious problems with lead in drinking water were highlighted recently when Flint, MI, changed its water source from treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water (sourced from Lake Huron and the Detroit River) to the Flint River. Officials failed to apply corrosion inhibitors to the water and as a result, there was a series of problems that culminated with lead contamination, creating a serious public health disaster. The Flint River water that was treated improperly caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply, leading to extremely elevated levels of lead. Between 6,000 and 12,000 children were likely exposed to this drinking water.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) the solution for removing lead in drinking water in our aging cities will take time, but we need to move as quickly as possible to replace outdated infrastructure:
- Accelerate replacement. As a nation, we need to remove the single largest source of lead in our water. Replacement of the entire lead service line must be an essential part of the solution, rather than a last resort. Water utilities, public health, environmental, and consumer organizations must collaborate to develop the programs communities need to drive service line removal.
- Make replacement affordable. Replacing lead service lines can be cost-prohibitive, especially for families who own their home and find they have lead pipes. A cooperative, community-based approach is needed to identify lead service lines and help finance removal.
- Update drinking water regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) needs to overhaul portions of the Safe Drinking Water Act related to lead in drinking water. EPA also must finalize a risk-based household action level for lead in drinking water to help guide people as they decide on a course of action.
- Improve oversight of suppliers. Federal, state and local entities must also improve oversight to make sure utilities that supply water comply with the law.
- Disclose hazards earlier. When people buy or rent a home, they need to be told clearly and definitively about any lead pipes so that they can factor replacement costs into their decision making.
We need to make drinking water safe for all our neighbors, especially our youngest neighbors.