Most of us take tap water for granted. But in millions of homes, that tap water could actually be contaminated with lead.
“The main problem with lead is that it is a powerful neurotoxin, and it particularly affects young children,” said Charlotte Jameson, the nonprofit’s policy director. Michigan Environmental Council.
Even low levels of exposure to lead can cause permanent damage to the brain and nervous system of children, as well as a host of ailments for adults. There are no known safe level of lead exposureaccording to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s really scary if you think about it, not being able to trust the water that comes out of your tap really impacts your daily life. To think that your water may have impacted the health of your child is a really scary thing to do as a parent,” she said.
In 2014, this became a reality for residents of Flint, Michigan. In an effort to save money, the city changed its water source but did not treat the new water with chemicals that prevent corrosion. Without corrosion control, Flint’s network of old lead pipes leached the toxic metal into drinking water, poisoning townspeople.
For many, Flint’s water crisis brought attention to the risks of lead contamination for the first time. But the factors that created this crisis are not unique to Flint.
“There are a thousand communities across America that could be a flint if things go wrong with the water supply,” said Gabriel Filippelli, executive director of the Environmental Resilience Institute at Indiana University.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, there are approximately 9 to 12 million lead pipes serving more than 20 million homes nationwide.
For most of the 19th century, lead was a common ingredient in pipes, paint, and even gasoline. It was an ideal material because it was flexible, malleable and inexpensive.
“It was the middle of the last century before people realized this stuff was dangerous. It took until the mid-1970s and into the 1980s for the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act to classify lead among the toxins, which meant that you couldn’t put any more in the pipes,” Filippelli explained.
Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director for health at the NRDC, said the lead pipe replacement is long overdue.
“We know that these lead service lines are the main source of lead in drinking water. The best thing to do is to remove these lead pipes from the ground to significantly reduce the risk to millions of people,” he said.
Service lines are large underground pipes that connect homes to the municipal water source. They are the main cause of lead contamination in water, although lead plumbing inside homes can also contribute to the problem.
The Biden administration had these pipes replaced a focal point of its infrastructure spending. The Federal Infrastructure Act, passed last year, provided $15 billion to remove lead service lines.
States and municipalities are also tackling the problem. Newark, New Jersey, has already replaced all of its 23,000 lead service lines in just three years. These replacement efforts may have positive economic results.
“It creates real economic benefits and is just a huge job creator. These funds are reinvested in the community where the money is spent. The benefits of replacement can be ten times the costs,” Olson said.
A study by group of companies E2 indicates that replacing all lead service lines would create 56,080 jobs per year over 10 years. But it’s not cheap. it costs about $5,000 to replace a single service line. According to Olson, the federal investment of $15 billion is only about a third of what is needed.
Filippelli, of the Environmental Resilience Institute, said landowners could end up footing the rest of the bill. “Replacing this infrastructure will eventually cost taxpayers a lot of money. So there is an economic impact on you, the water consumer, in terms of a higher bill.
This could be especially difficult for low-income communities of color, who experience high levels of lead exposure and are more likely to live in older buildings that contain lead plumbing and paint and to reside in urban areas that rely on lead service lines.
Erik Olson of the NRDC said current initiatives to replace lead pipes in these communities – and across the country – are not moving fast enough.
There’s a lot going on in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is there for you.
You rely on Marketplace to break down world events and tell you how it affects you in a factual and accessible way. We count on your financial support to continue to make this possible.
Your donation today fuels the independent journalism you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help maintain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.