Lead service lines are a menace to public health. Millions of such pipes still feed Americans’ homes.
Sept. 9, 2019
Once more an American city faces a lead crisis, with thousands of residents unable to drink from their taps. Lines for bottled water have stretched into the hundreds. Politicians are scrambling to overhaul the water system — and fast. This time it’s happening in New Jersey’s largest city, Newark.
Like the fiasco in Flint, Michigan, the Newark lead crisis had its own unique causes, including mismanagement and political infighting. But the two debacles have one crucial thing in common: pipes. Specifically the lead pipes installed decades ago, by the millions all over the country, to connect mains to houses and businesses. Pipes that can shed invisible molecules of metal when water passes through.
These pipes, known as service lines, were made from lead until well into the 1980s (even though lead’s dangers have been known for centuries). When the government banned lead from new pipes in 1986, it did nothing about the hundreds of miles of pipe still underground. At least 6 million such pipes (and likely many more) are still in use, serving households in almost one-third of the country’s water districts.
Lead is a neurotoxin. Its effects on the brain are well-known: learning disabilities, behavioral problems, anxiety and depression. It can also trigger heart, liver and kidney disease. Growing children are especially vulnerable. There is no safe level of exposure.
Right now, the standard practice is to treat water with anti-corrosion chemicals before sending it to households. Sometimes this works, but not always — as Newark shows. The city’s long-established corrosion control practice appears to have stopped working after the city made an unrelated tweak to the water supply. As is often the case, nobody saw it coming. As long as there’s lead in the pipes, the risk remains.
Why not just replace the pipes? That’s what Newark is doing — albeit belatedly — and what more than half a dozen other cities have done. The National Drinking Water Advisory Council recommends this approach. Granted, full replacement is costly and complicated, not least because most service lines are partly privately owned. But success in cities such as Lansing, Michigan, and Madison, Wisconsin, has shown that the legal and financial obstacles are surmountable. The state of Minnesota recently found that every dollar invested in lead-pipe replacement would yield $10 in savings.
Other cities have adopted more modest policies, such as replacing lines to day-care centers or requiring service lines be replaced when properties change hands. Whatever the approach, states can help by requiring home sellers to disclose the existence of lead service lines, for example — much like federal law requires sellers to disclose lead paint. States should also be more aggressive in tracking and publicizing the location of lines, and lay the legal groundwork to help communities fund replacement efforts. The federal government should provide grants to defray some of the cost.
It would be money well spent. Researchers at New York University say lead poisoning costs the U.S. $51 billion annually. And remediation works: Plans to phase out lead have proved to be spectacular public-health successes, though they were met with grumbles at the time.
In ancient times, people drank from lead vessels because they didn’t know any better. There’s no longer any excuse.