Air pipes

The lead pipes of the “time bomb” must be removed. But water utilities have to find them first

“Flint’s water crisis wasn’t the first, it wasn’t the worst, and it wasn’t the last,” she said. “Things like this continue to happen unnoticed across the country.”

It is difficult, however, to say how much the lead water spike may have affected the children of Trenton, since the population is so small.

In each of the two years before Trenton switched to monochloramine, fewer than five children in the zip code spanning the city had blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter, which at the time was the reference of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. assess.

When the number of tests is so low, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services withholds data to avoid identifying children. Thus, the exact number of children poisoned with lead during these years is not known to the public.

In 2014, it increased to eight, then to 13 in 2015 and to 20 in 2016.

In 2017, it fell to eight, then to five or less from 2018.

Edwards said that when monochloramine is added to water, the most severe lead leaching occurs within a year or two. This means that Trenton was not testing its water when it had perhaps its highest lead levels.

After discovering lead in its water, Trenton treated it to stop corrosion and its lead levels dropped back below EPA limits.

Where are the pipes?

Missouri is set to receive $250 million over the next five years to replace lead service lines. Kansas will receive $164 million, Nebraska will receive $142 million and Iowa will receive $225 million.

But first, utilities need to identify where they are.

Data collected by Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska under the U.S. Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 reflects nearly 194,000 service lines made of lead or using lead connectors in the four states. But only a fraction of the public services were required to complete these surveys.

A study based on two voluntary industry surveys from 2011 and 2013 estimates that these four states have 747,000 lead service lines, some of the most per capita in the country.

“We don’t have an estimate or an estimate, but we know we have thousands in Iowa,” said Mark Moeller, supervisor of the Department of Water Supply Engineering Section. natural resources of Iowa.

Jeff Pinson, monitoring chief for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Inorganic Unit, said utilities know enough about the remaining lead service lines. But he said the state doesn’t know how many there are.

Until the inventory is underway, it’s hard to say how many lead service lines might remain in Nebraska, said Jessica Johnson, an environmental specialist with the Department of Environment and Nebraska Energy which implements the State’s Safe Drinking Water Act.

“I would say until the ink is dry and they’re submitted, I wouldn’t want to make any guesses or anything like that,” she said.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment said it received material assessments, used to determine test sites, from 2017. It used them to complete investigations under the 2019 law.

“It will be a very big challenge for Water Systems and KDHE to complete the inventories on schedule,” agency spokesman Matthew Lara said in an email.

Data collected under the 2018 law shows a large number of lead service lines in St. Louis — about 50% of the city’s 127,402 connections. It’s an estimate because St. Louis doesn’t know where the lines are either.

  • Des Moines, Iowa, reported about 20,500 lead service lines in the same survey.
  • In Omaha, Nebraska, and surrounding areas, about 12,500 Metropolitan Utilities District customers get their water through lead service lines, according to the utility. Another 26,000 are unknown, and the utility estimates that around 5,000 or fewer could be lead.
  • Lincoln, Nebraska, estimated 2,200 lead pipes and 3,400 non-lead pipes with lead connectors after the 2018 law. The utility says it doesn’t know where they are all and that there may be some. have more. She hired a national company to help her with her inventory.
  • Cedar Rapids, Iowa, officials say they are “working toward an accurate understanding” of the location of their plumb lines. It does not have precise data, but estimates that 7,000 or fewer of its roughly 54,000 service lines are in lead.
  • Kansas City, Mo., says there are no longer any known lead pipes it is responsible for, but says it doesn’t know what materials are on the customer-owned end of the line.

Charlie Stevens, utility operations manager for KC Water, said the city’s only information on the remaining lead service lines is a list of 128 remaining pipes from the 1980s. The utility believes those pipes were withdrawn, Stevens said. But the only information confirming this is “hearsay,” he said, from a former utility lab director.

KC Water said it had 159,804 lead-free service lines and 16,050 of unknown materials.

Stevens said Kansas City is only working on its portion of the service line, from the water main to the sidewalk. That means he may have replaced portions of the lead service lines and left the rest in the ground.

Experts, including an EPA advisory boardclaim that replacing part of a lead service line does not reliably reduce lead levels in drinking water – and may even worsen contamination in the short term, as sawing and shaking the pipe can release more metal.

When asked if this was an issue Kansas City had ever experienced or concerned about, Stevens said no.

Many utilities claim responsibility for the portion of the service line from a water main to the property line or curb stop. They say the customer is responsible for the rest.

That’s politics in Trenton.

“There’s a bit of liability on the owners, I think, too,” said Urton, the city administrator.

Olson disputes this.

“In so many places across the country, water utilities say, ‘We don’t own the whole service line,’ or ‘We only own a small part of it, and the owner is responsible for the stay”” says Olson. “And in so many cases, it’s not at all legally clear.”

A new EPA rule requiring utilities to inventory their primary service line says they must account for everything.

Utilities on both sides of the state line in Kansas City say they don’t have lead service lines on their side, but they can’t account for the customer portion of the line.

WaterOne serves most of Johnson County, Kansas, in the suburbs of Kansas City. It says it has no lead in its distribution system and has sent comments to the EPA opposing the requirement to inventory lead service lines.

“The requirement for a lead service line inventory places WaterOne in the complex position of proving the negative of what we already know to be true – the absence of lead in (the) utility side of the utility system. ‘water supply,’ the utility letter says.

Cities and states are still waiting for more guidance from the EPA to give water utilities best practices for locating lead pipes.

“Poison Straws Underground”

It’s difficult to tally up the toll of lead-contaminated water in a community, said Bruce Lanphear, lead researcher and professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

At levels like those measured in Trenton, the impact is not immediately obvious.

“Because people don’t collapse immediately, we don’t treat it as an urgent issue,” Lanphear said.

At the population level, he said, a pregnant woman exposed to high levels of lead could increase the risk of premature delivery or miscarriage.

“But for premature births, we don’t see lead. We’re just saying it just happens,” Lanphear said. “So that’s the dilemma is that it’s insidious.”

Beyond that, Edwards said screening programs are not designed to target children most at risk of being exposed to lead-contaminated water.

Surveillance programs typically target toddlers, who are at risk of exposure to lead paint from crawling and putting objects in their mouths. But fetuses and infants using formula are most exposed to lead in water.

Edwards said the health department is inclined to assume the water is safe because the utility should be monitoring lead.

“And so no one is testing the age group most likely to show the damage to health,” he said.

Lanphear said it’s frustrating, but not surprising, that state governments don’t know where the lead pipes are.

“We have really, in many ways, ignored even the most basic public health infrastructure,” Lanphear said, while emphasizing expensive cures and cost-effective technological advancements.

“We’ve overlooked things that are fundamental to health, like clean water, clean air, food that’s not contaminated with lead and other chemicals.”

Situations like this in Trenton, Hanna-Attisha said, are a wake-up call that “we’re not listening to science, we’re not protecting children.” She said it’s a reminder that the Biden administration’s infrastructure package is important for finding those “poison straws underground.”

“We continue to blunt the potential of so many children by not addressing this issue,” she said.

But she said there was hope now.

“The Infrastructure Act is the biggest federal investment in water infrastructure,” she said, “the biggest federal investment ever in eliminating lead from water. It’s not all the money, but it’s a lot of money that will hopefully end up solving this long-standing problem.