With the lead piping – Millions of Americans still get their drinking water from lead pipes | United States
THEVER A CENTURY has passed since the dangers of lead consumption became widely known. Ingesting even small amounts damages the young brain and can increase the risk of heart problems. Yet Chicago residents – and many other cities – still mostly drink from lead-fed taps. In the Windy City, around 400,000 lines are connected to the power grid, which connect around four out of five houses there. A study of nearly 3,000 households two years ago found that two-thirds had high levels of lead in their water.
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In Chicago, some residents are told to flush their faucets before drinking, install filters, or avoid boiled water (this can concentrate higher levels of lead). Older homes in poorer areas may be the worst hit. Why does this problem persist since it has been recognized for so long?
The city’s water problems are due in part to the historic clout of industry lobbyists and a plumbing union. In the last century, when other cities stopped installing the pipes or began removing them, they nudged Chicago leaders to establish rules that make lead pipes mandatory. That lasted until a federal ban on new lead pipes in 1986. More than three decades later, Lori Lightfoot was recently the first female mayor to come up with a plan to fix problems. The catch? It’s going to cost $ 8.5 billion that the city government doesn’t have. At the current pace, with fewer than 800 pipes being replaced each year, residents won’t be able to get unleaded water until the mid-26th century.
Mayors are more vigilant about the problem these days, especially since the 2014 water crisis in Flint, Michigan, when residents were exposed to high levels of lead leached from their pipes. Flint is spending $ 100 million updating its system. Erik Olson of the Defense Council for Natural Resources, which has been advocating the issue for 30 years, says that thousands of water systems across the country that serve tens of millions of people are still facing “serious problems”. The new awareness of the problem encourages him.
A number of new studies on the effects of lead exposure have helped. The hypothesis that lead damage to developing brains leads to violence later in life is one of the great mysteries of social science – widely believed by those who depict the decline in violence versus the decline in lead exposure and how the two haunt each other; widely suspicious of researchers mumbling about correlation and causality. Recent studies are more nuanced. One of James Feigenbaum at Boston University and Christopher Muller at Berkeley tried to control other factors by comparing cities where the pH of water supplies was below seven, acidifying them, and causing lead to leach into the water. The authors found acidic water to be associated with more crime.
Some cities flush chemicals – orthophosphates – into pipes to coat them and prevent lead from getting into the water. Milwaukee spends $ 400,000 a year on this. That helps, but malfunctions – for example when power lines are replaced, but not household service lines – can shake out particles that remain in the water. Karen Dettmer, superintendent of Milwaukee Waterworks, says the events in Flint have caused her city to suspend all service repairs. They also found ten schools fed by management lines in 2017 that were promptly replaced. Kindergartens operated from private homes remain exposed.
Milwaukee seeks to replace 1,100 leads each year in hopes of emulating cities like Lansing, Madison and Green Bay that recently replaced all of their leads. Pittsburgh, Newark, and other cities plan to do the same. The cost of replacing a pipe averages $ 11,000 in Milwaukee (it was lower elsewhere). For service lines located primarily on private land, negotiations and cost sharing with the owners are required. Doing all of this “will take about 70 years, it’s not fast,” she says. Much of the housing stock is decades old and pipes in houses can also be a source of lead.
With the help of the federal government, states and cities could move faster. Regulation is a concern. The EPA last updated its lead and copper rule in 1991, which specifies how quickly lead pipes should be replaced. It requires 7% of them to be replaced annually in a given location, although this has apparently not been enforced. A change that the EPA sent to the White House in July, pending Donald Trump’s signature, would ease that to 3% per year. (It would also tighten the rules to speed up exchanges in schools.) Mr. Olson calls the proposed change “appalling”.
Cities want to make changes, but replacing 10 million service lines could cost $ 50 billion, says Olson (cheaper to do in bulk). Twice this summer, the Democratic-led House of Representatives passed bills to pay off – first a $ 22.5 billion approval, then a $ 1 billion bill for this fiscal year. The proposed infrastructure bills also include amounts for the removal of lead pipes. But so far such plans have not led anywhere in the Senate.
Joe Biden’s administration could move things forward. The EPA could again set higher standards and order overdue public hearings on the matter, possibly in badly affected cities like Flint. A bill co-sponsored by New Jersey Republican Congressman Chris Smith would require all lead pipes to be replaced within a decade. Its schedule may look too ambitious, but waiting for another 500 years to fix the problem isn’t a great plan either.■
This article appeared in the “USA” section of the print version under the heading “With the Lead Pipeline”.