The presence of lead in drinking water has been America’s problem for decades. Because lead is strong, malleable, it is a popular material for water piping in the country, but it is also highly toxic and can leach into drinking water when it corrodes. High exposure to lead can cause heart disease to brain damages (Where are America’s, 2021).
Even low levels of lead in children can lead to behavioral problems, lower IQ, and anemia. In pregnant women, it can cause premature birth and reduce fetal growth. Adults can suffer kidney and reproductive problems (Millions of Americans, 2020).
The problem is that not all states know where these lead pipes are nor track them.
The Economist reports that in 2018, the EPA requested the states to report on all active lead pipes by 2022. The NDRC early this year also made the same request.
Only ten states and the District of Columbia were able to provide estimates; 23 states say they are not tracking the number of lead pipes, and the rest failed to respond or sent incomplete data.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that there are between 6 to 10 million lead service lines across America. Another estimate from the NDRC, using a 2016 survey by the American Water Works Association, estimates that there are between 9.7 to 12.8 million lead pipes in the country serving as many as 22 million people (Where are America’s, 2021).
Replacing all these lead pipes will cost US$50 billion, according to Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Mr. Olson has been campaigning for the country’s lead problem for 30 years. He believes tens of millions still face “serious problems” as lead continues to leach into their drinking water (Millions of Americans, 2020).
A study in JAMA Pediatrics shows that children in high-poverty areas are 2.5 times more likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood than in low-poverty areas. Children in predominantly black neighborhoods are about 9% points more likely than children in primarily white areas to have detectable lead in their blood (Campbell & Wessel, 2021).
The Flint water crisis in 2014 caused by leaching lead pipes has led the state of Michigan to mandate in 2018 the removal of all its lead pipes by 2041, making it the first state to implement such a law (Where are America’s, 2021).
In November 2021, a judge approved a $626 million settlement to the Flint water crisis victims. Still, on the same day of this court ruling, Benton Harbor residents filed a class-action lawsuit alleging deliberate government indifference. The city also made headlines for its water crisis this year.
Benton Harbor is just three hours from Flint, and its residents, 80% of which are black and belong to low-income communities, are not drinking their tap water as it has tested above the federal action limit for lead since 2018. “Benton Harbor exemplifies how many low-income communities have managed to obtain funding in the past: grassroots organizing.” And like Flint, media coverage has helped them secure grants more quickly. But other cash-strapped towns must compete for limited funding (Fixing the lead-pipe, 2021).
Hence the significance of the bipartisan bill, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), as it allocates $15 billion for lead pipe replacements.
The proposed Build Back Better bill will also add another $10 billion for pipe replacements and mitigation strategies like the filters aimed at schools. Although these funds won’t be enough to replace every lead pipe in the country, they could still go a long way into fixing the problem.
From an infrastructure asset management viewpoint, improving the accuracy of infrastructure inventories around lead service lines would assist in managing the issues and the prioritization of remedial work programs.
Millions of Americans still get their drinking water from lead pipes. (2020 December 3). The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/united-states/2020/12/03/millions-of-americans-still-get-their-drinking-water-from-lead-pipes
Where are America’s lead pipes? (2021, December 2). The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2021/12/02/where-are-americas-lead-pipes
Campell, S. & Wessel, D. (2021, November 8). What would it cost to replace all the nation’s lead water pipes? Brookings. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2021/05/13/what-would-it-cost-to-replace-all-the-nations-lead-water-pipes/
Fixing the lead-pipe problem in Benton Harbor, and across America. (2021 December 4). The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/united-states/2021/12/04/fixing-the-lead-pipe-problem-in-benton-harbor-and-across-america