Although Congress has passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill, it will not fund enough of the upgrades needed to bring the country’s drinking water infrastructure up to Environmental Protection Agency standards. environment. Lead and copper rule 2021. Lead exposure from all sources, from paint to pipes in the United States, prematurely kills 412,000 people each year, about as many as the number of people who died of covid-19 in 2021. Globally in 2019, it reduced people’s lifespans by 21.7 million years.
How and why has the country’s drinking water infrastructure become so leaden and therefore toxic? The dangers of this material have been known since the 19th century. Yet many municipalities have embraced lead enthusiastically, convinced by the lead industry’s cost-benefit analysis and public relations efforts. Even as scientific evidence was mounting against the use of lead in the mid-20th century, the practice continued. But because it disproportionately harmed poor, black and other marginalized communities, tax calculations have trumped public health concerns.
Prior to the Civil War, most drinking water pipes in the United States used iron. But soon industrialization allowed the massive use of lead to replace iron pipes and lay new pipes. It was an easy choice because lead was cheaper, lasted twice as long, and was a much more flexible metal than iron. Consequently, at the turn of the 20th century, more than 70% of cities with high population densityincluding New York, Chicago, Detroit and Boston, used lead service lines to provide water to residents.
But even as municipalities embraced lead pipelines in the late 19th century, medical journals and popular news articles warned of the public health consequences of lead ingestion. This prompted many cities and towns to ban or reduce the use of lead in pipes, even though the alternatives were more expensive. New York, for example, stopped using lead for pipes because many builders’ unions demanded that copper be used instead. But in cities that were built or grew a lot between 1900 and 1940, areas with cheaper housing and weak unions continued to install lead pipes.
This history coincided with the great migration of African Americans from the Deep South to cities in the North, Midwest, and West from the 1910s to mid-century. Black Americans as well as other people of color moved into urban centers where de facto segregation and red lines forced them disproportionately to live in housing served by lead pipes.
Fearing that public knowledge and awareness of the growing problem of lead poisoning in drinking water would threaten their basic business model, in 1928 the Lead Industries Association (LIA), a trade organization, launched a campaign to convince governments at the local, state and federal levels. levels to continue using lead.
With the onset of the Great Depression shortly thereafter, the LIA helped change the reputation of the metal from a potential poison to an economically beneficial material whose effects on public health were minimal or unknown. The LIA lobbied plumbers’ organizations, local water authorities and federal officials. It distributes “educational” newsletters and books extolling the advantages of lead over other materials and providing practical advice on the installation and repair of lead pipes.
In 1938, LIA agent Robert Dick listed the accomplishments of the campaign, which included nine cities and towns revising their codes to require lead for pipes and 48 cities and towns working to revise their codes. Two years later, the LIA boasted that “lead plumbing is now included in many federal government specifications where it had been excluded for many years.”
A 1957 note written by an industry doctor revealed how the industry deliberately used racial and ethnic bias to counter the “negative publicity” of lead poisoning in children. They presented it as a “problem of slums and relatively ignorant parents” of “black and Puerto Rican families”.
Yet independent scientists have gone on to find that lead in water causes many adverse health consequences and even death. Geochemist Clair Patterson at MIT published an article in 1965 demonstrating that the acceptance of lead levels as normal and safe was based only on an unproven assumption. The document caught the attention of the federal government. But the LIA denied it, falsely claiming that “lead is normal” until 1970 – the year President Richard Nixon created the EPA.
Although Nixon supported the EPA and signed landmark environmental legislation such as the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1971, he delegated much of the EPA’s work to the states. Many state politicians have failed to acknowledge or address the environmental racism perpetuated by lead and other polluting industries.
Eventually, greater awareness of environmental racism sparked a movement in the 1980s centered on environmental justice. Anti-lead activists wanted to address the failure of federal and state governments to pass and implement effective and fair legislation to modernize all lead service lines. In 1986, Congress recognized and amended the Safe Drinking Water Act to prohibit “the use of pipe, solder, or flux that was not ‘lead-free’ in public water systems or plumbing in facilities supplying water for human consumption”.
Despite this federal ban, replacements of lead service lines in low-income communities undertaken after 1986 were often only partial renovations that could sometimes even increase lead levels by stirring sedentary lead.
As a result, in 1991 the EPA established a lead and copper ruler which sets a maximum limit of 15 parts per billion for lead in drinking water, even though he knew that no amount of lead was safe. When the problem of lead pipe poisoning persisted in 1996, Congress prohibited “the introduction into commerce of any pipe, pipe or fitting or plumbing fixture that is not lead-free.”
And yet, the lead remained in millions of service lines and thus in the drinking water they delivered to tens of millions of unsuspecting urban and rural dwellers.
Faced with a fiscal crisis and inaction at the state and federal level, the 2014 Flint Crisis finally brought sustained national media attention to how such purely fiscal calculations could seriously jeopardize the public health. Indeed, Scientific American reported in 2019 that while “poverty remains a strong predictor of lead poisoning, victims span the American spectrum – poor and rich, rural and urban, black and white.”
Without significant government investment in these communities to fully replace drinking water infrastructure, residents will continue to be forced to drink lead contaminated water.
Recognizing that the LIA’s major promotional campaign beginning in 1928 and misguided government policy exacerbated this tragedy, the Biden administration’s Build Back Better Act ensures $10 billion for a long-awaited complete renovation of all estimated 10 million lead service lines nationwide, with the potential to unlock an additional $65 billion.
Although the complete modernization of these pipelines would cost approximately $28–47 billion in total, and taking years, it would help right the historic wrong embodied by the water crises that have plagued Flint, Newark and many other cities and communities over the past few decades.