Exposing Rampant Lead Poisoning in US Infastructure

When Tia came home from the doctor’s, she was in a panic. Her two children had lead poisoning from tap water. Every time the family bathed, ate, or drank a glass of water, they were being slowly poisoned. For Tia’s family, and many others who simply don’t have sufficient financial resources, the ability to move remains out of reach. Instead, they’re forced to rely on bottled water and filters to protect themselves from further exposure to lead — all because of a regulatory system that fails to keep everyone safe from a well-known toxin.

Unfortunately, this family’s story is not unique. For the past year, dangerously high levels of lead have contaminated the tap water in Flint, MI. Now, as many as 8,000 children may experience permanent health complications. But the risks of lead poisoning affect countless more adolescents and adults, not only in Flint but also nationwide.

For the people of Flint, this epidemic started in 2014 when the city manager, appointed by Governor Rick Snyder, switched the city’s water supply from that of Detroit to a regional system that draws from Lake Huron. This initiative was designed to save the city money — using Detroit’s system was more costly, and cash-strapped Flint desperately needed to cut costs where it could. While the city constructed infrastructure for the regional system, it drew its water from the Flint River, a water source that had been Flint’s backup supply in the past and was heavily polluted from decades of industrial waste.

This contamination made Flint’s water more corrosive than Detroit’s, requiring alternative treatment to be safe. But the necessary treatment never occurred. As a result, the water from the Flint River slowly eroded the city’s pipes, releasing lead into the tap water.

The contaminated water smelled funny, tasted bad, and looked yellowish-brown. Residents began to complain of mysterious rashes and loosing clumps of hair within weeks of the switch. They suspected something was wrong, but city officials swore the water was perfectly fine. In June 2014, Mayor Dayne Walling told the Flint Journal that “it’s a quality, safe product.”

The water, however, was not fine. In some homes, lead concentrations grossly exceeded allowable levels. Finally, after months of protest by activists, the government finally acknowledged that the concerns were valid.

Today, residents avoid using their tap water for even the smallest activities. People use bottled water to bathe, cook, and even brush their teeth. As the country grapples with this situation, many ask, “how did this happen?” The answer is fairly simple: regulatory failure and political apathy. But the real tragedy is that this situation is not unique. Flint is an exceptionally bad case of a problem common around the country. At least a dozen municipalities in the United States have lead levels higher than those in Flint, and dozens more have levels that are much higher than what is acceptable. Most troublesome is the fact that it’s often the lowest-income and more disenfranchised communities that must deal with the effects of lead exposure. But rather than mobilizing to right this wrong, many seem willing to let the status quo continue — even when it comes at the expense of thousands of people’s health.

Lead is a highly a powerful neurotoxin, one of the most dangerous on the planet. Exposure can cause stunted growth, learning disabilities, speech impairment, hearing loss, reproductive problems, and kidney damage. These health effects are most commonly found in young children, as kids’ growing bodies and minds absorb lead to a greater degree than adults’ do. Some public health experts have gone as far as to compare lead exposure in early childhood to being repeatedly hit on the head with a hammer. And in pregnant women, lead poisoning not only threatens the woman’s health, but can also damage the fetus and even lead to a miscarriage.

Perhaps the worst part is that the harmful impacts of lead don’t stop with the person who is affected. Lead poisoning can have epigenetic effects that cause these health problems to be passed down for generations. The negative impacts of lead poisoning are so detrimental that some countries moved to ban the use of the substance for public health reasons by the turn of the 20th century.

In the United States, the pragmatic appeal of lead outweighed concerns about its health effects. Lead gasoline, paint, and pipes became industry standards and touched almost all aspects of life. Most notably, builders were attracted to lead pipes because lead was durable but still relatively easy to work with.

For many years, the lead industry successfully combatted concerns about the prevalence of this toxic substance in our homes, insisting that lead was perfectly safe and lobbying to prevent researchers from saying otherwise. In fact, during the Reagan Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was banned from investigating and publishing the results of lead screening tests. But these health concerns couldn’t be brushed aside forever, and public concern grew about the harmful effects that lead has on the human body over the latter half of the 20th century.

Given the harm this toxic substance poses, scientists lobbied legislative bodies to limit the use of lead in our daily lives. In 1978, there was an early victory in this fight — regulators banned lead paint, a particularly easy way for children to consume lead. It would be another 13 years before anyone would implement regulations to keep lead out of water.

Finally, throughout the 90s, the EPA banned leaded gasoline and adopted the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) in response to growing awareness about lead’s devastating impacts on human health. The LCR created a basic system to keep tabs on the prevalence of lead in tap water. To determine how much lead existed in the water, the rule set up a framework for testing, outlining how often water samples should be taken from homes.

It also established the maximum allowable lead concentration, or “action level,” in drinking water. When that limit is exceeded, the rule mandates that the utility operating the drinking water supply take steps to reduce the lead content in the water and educate the public on the risks of lead poisoning. If a city’s water exceeds 15 parts per billion of lead per one liter of water drawn after the water has been sitting in the pipes for six hours, then its utility company must adopt the best chemical control system possible to reduce the concentrations of the toxin in the water. If that fails to work after a period of time, the utility must begin the process of replacing the pipes it owns until the lead levels stabilize below the action level.

The cracks in this regulatory regime began to appear over ten years ago when Washington, DC experienced a crisis that resembled Flint’s. The problem started in 2001 when DC changed how it treated its water. Instead of adding chlorine, the utility added chloramine, believing that the new treatment would be better for pipes and human health. But it had the opposite effect: Chloramine eroded the pipes and released high concentrations of lead into the water supply. Some homes had lead levels 20 times higher than the EPA’s recommended limit.

Officials failed to take action or notify residents of the harm when they first noticed the dangerously high lead levels. A subsequent congressional inquiry into the tragedy exposed that the utility company, the CDC, and the EPA not only failed to act when initial test results revealed the problem, but also tried to hide the information from residents. These authorities neglected to include the worst six water tests in their initial assessment of the problem, skewing the results. The utility also failed to comply with EPA regulations by not notifying some residents about the lead levels in its water and downplaying the warnings it did send out.

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor, uncovered the problem during an unrelated investigation into pinhole leaks in copper pipes. He suspected the leaks occurred due to a change in water chemistry, and upon testing the water he found that some water contained as much as 1,250 parts per billion of lead (the recommended limit is 15 parts per billion). “Some of it would literally have to be classified as a hazardous waste,” Edwards said following his discovery.

Families had consumed this toxic water for three years before anyone took action to address the threat. As a result, as many as 42,000 children in DC acquired developmental problems due to their exposure to lead water. Between 2000 and 2003, stillbirths in DC went up by 37 percent. Even today, an estimated 15,000 homes in the district may still have dangerous levels of lead even after numerous efforts by the city to address the problem.

Flint’s experience is another example of the limited effectiveness of the LCR. City regulators failed to understand how the regulation worked and what was expected of them when the water supply changed. Some regulators believed that they needed to test the water over a period of months before they could change the chemicals added to the water, while others believed that the change in chemicals needed to be made immediately. Emails between the EPA and city officials suggest that the regulators knew about the confusion surrounding the rule and were concerned about lead levels as early as February 2015, more than half a year before anyone took action to protect residents from further exposure to lead.

In theory, the LCR is supposed to keep customers safe from lead in tap water. However, in reality it’s actually a poorly enforced rule. In both of these situations, the EPA had the information to act but failed to do so, refusing to hold utilities accountable for the service they provide and preventing the regulation from protecting people from lead exposure. This failure has put thousands of children and their relatives, especially those of low socioeconomic status, at risk for lead poisoning across the country.

Even when regulatory authorities are not asleep at the wheel, the actions taken by utilities to reduce high lead levels often only make the problem worse. Consider Providence: The city’s lead water concentration is above what the EPA finds acceptable, and lead levels have been near that action level since the agency adopted the LCR in 1991. To combat this, Providence’s utility adopted a policy of Partial Lead Service Line Replacements (PLSLRs) in 2006. In essence, this means that the Providence Water Supply Board began replacing the utility-owned section of water line in an effort to reduce the lead concentration in the water. The lines that run from the water treatment plant, under the street, and up to a residence are the utility’s property. The piping that runs from the curb into the house, however, is the landowner’s property. As a result, the utility cannot unilaterally replace the pipes that feed into homes and can only replace those under the street. To replace the full water line, the utility needs to get the property owner’s permission, and, unless the utility chooses to pay for the lead pipe replacement, money from the property owner as well. Replacing the landowner’s piping tends to cost $3,000-$4,000 — not a small amount of money. As a result, PLSLRs are often preferred over complete line replacements because they are cheaper and the utility company does not need to consult property owners beforehand.

However, partial pipe replacements are now generally considered ineffective at reducing the risk of lead poisoning. The removal of some, but not all, of the lead pipes in a system can release elevated rates of lead from the remaining pipes. PLSLRs, then, make the problem worse, not better. The EPA and the CDC have funded some of the seminal papers demonstrating this phenomenon. But the use of PLSLRs to lower lead levels continues due to the difficulties of replacing water lines in their entirety.

Between 2006 and 2011, the Providence Water Supply Board (ProvWater) spent $7.4 million to replace 30 percent of the lead service lines. While initial test results indicated that the PLSLRs reduced the lead concentration in some homes, protests regarding the controversial use of an arguably dangerous method ended the program prematurely. Today, ProvWater has changed its chemical treatments to raise water pH levels in an effort to prevent corrosion. Unfortunately, this strategy fails to reduce the lead concentration to the desired extent, given that the current lead level in Providence’s water is 16 parts per billion, still slightly above the EPA’s action level.

Beyond the challenges Providence and other cities have experienced trying to lower their lead levels, there lies a more fundamental problem with the way the government regulates lead in drinking water. In fact, the limit of 15 parts per billion likely understates the risks lead poses.

As a rule, 15 parts per billion is fairly arbitrary and was crafted at a time when the extent of the neurotoxin’s effects was poorly understood. Today, many public health experts and medical professionals believe that there’s no level of safe exposure to lead, especially for children. Instead of asking for action when lead concentrations rise above 15 parts per billion, the EPA should react with alarm to any level of lead.

The National Drinking Water Advisory Council, a committee created with the sole purpose of reviewing the LCR, has explicitly expressed this view. When the Council released its recommendations last winter, it argued that there’s no safe level of lead exposure and as a result, simply revising the LCR rule would not be enough to protect Americans. Instead, the Council recommended replacing all lead pipes in the country, and, in the meantime, strengthening compliance with the existing rule.

Most of the lead pipes in the United States were installed prior to World War II, and it’s estimated that 6.5 million pipes installed during the war period are still in use. This prevalence of pipes makes regulating and eliminating the substance difficult. Many localities need to replace their water infrastructure. This is no small task, especially since US spending on infrastructure consistently falls short — as a result, few areas can afford to replace thousands of pipes.

Nevertheless, some cities, like Lansing, MI and Madison, WI, have managed to accomplish this difficult feat. Both cities employed a policy that spreads the costs of replacing lead pipes among residents, the utility company, and the government. Madison had several thousand lead pipes before its water provider decided to offer residents the option of partnering with the utility to replace their water lines. The utility will pay for half of the replacement cost for the portion of the water line that falls on private property. This program has been extremely effective. Piloted in 2001, the program facilitated the replacement of 6,000 utility-side connectors and 6,000 customer-owned water lateral pipes with copper pipes. Today, almost no lead piping remains in Madison, one of the only Wisconsin cities in that position. Likewise, Lansing adopted a similar program, offering residents up to $1,000 to replace the part of their water lines that lie on their property. And just like Madison, Lansing has almost entirely eliminated its lead pipe problem. Both of these cities’ successes suggest that it’s possible to completely replace lead piping. However, governments will have to increase investments in infrastructure to do so, a challenging policy in this political climate, even when the stakes are high.

The crises in DC and Flint could have been prevented. Without a regulatory breakdown, lead poisoning wouldn’t have become such an epidemic, but there’s also no guarantee that this type of disaster won’t happen again if the country doesn’t fully eliminate lead pipes.

At the current rate, the US is on track to finish replacing its lead pipes in 300 years. Frequently, the lowest-income, most disadvantaged children are at the highest risk for lead poisoning. They’re not only the people likely to live in homes that have lead pipes, but also the ones who can’t afford to move or remove the contaminant. As Elyse Pivnick, environmental health director of the nonprofit Isles, Inc., explains: “While lead levels in the suburbs have plummeted, the harsh fact is that minority children in urban communities continue to be poisoned.”

Thus, the apathy regarding lead poisoning cannot continue. Flint is not the exception to the rule: It is an example of how bad the situation can become.

Around the country, 12 states have reported having at least 4 percent of children younger than five-years-old with dangerously high blood-lead levels. But this is only a fraction of the problem; states repeatedly fail to report childhood blood lead surveillance results to the CDC. In 2014, only 26 states and DC reported this information. Consequently, the true state of affairs for lead poisoning could in fact be much worse than current research suggests.

The status quo cannot continue. The United States has the technology to remove the threat of lead poisoning and the medical knowledge to understand that the benefit of replacing lead pipes outweighs the costs. The two crucial factors for necessary action are political will and the public purse. While lead poisoning might be an equal opportunity disease in its tendency to decimate all those exposed, exposure to the substance isn’t. Continuing to ignore the problem perpetuates a system that disadvantages those of low socioeconomic status by hindering their health and development in ways that are permanent and severe. Local governments and utilities must act now to ensure that while crises like Flint may not be the first instances of municipal lead poisoning, it can hopefully be the last.