Although the use of lead in public water systems was banned in 1986 by the EPA, an estimated 15 to 22 million Americans’ drinking water supply still comes from lead service lines. Now, after 35 years of waffling, grandfathering, and stopgap measures, it looks as though a comprehensive lead pipe replacement initiative is imminent. The recently announced Biden-Harris Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan seeks to finally replace lead pipes throughout the country by utilizing funds from the bipartisan infrastructure package as well as the EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.
While lead is a common metal found in the soil and air, it more problematically exists in pipes used to transmit drinking water, leading to lead leaching into the water, and into those who drink it. Low level lead exposure in children has been linked to learning disabilities, impaired hearing, behavior and learning problems, slowed growth, and anemia. For pregnant women, even relatively low blood lead elevations cause an increased risk of miscarriages and fetal death. Perhaps the World Health Organization sums it up best: “There is no level of exposure to lead that is known to be without harmful effects.”
Lead pipes for drinking water are present in every state, but just how many lead drinking water pipes are currently in use is open for debate. The EPA estimates there are between 6 and 10 million lead service lines across the country, while environmental group National Resource Defense Council claims that number may be as high as 13 million. The problem is, no one knows exactly how much lead is out there, as many of the service lines were installed before there were laws requiring detailed recordkeeping.
The biggest hurdle to replacing lead service lines is the cost. With a price tag of $5,000 $10,000 for each service line replacement, the incredible burden of lead pipe replacement would simply be out of reach for many communities. The Biden-Harris Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan would provide funding for lead service line replacement, both those currently the responsibility of homeowners and those owned by municipalities or utilities, paving the way for work to finally be completed.
With the wildly disparate estimates of the scope of the lead service pipe problem, digital field inspections will be key to discovering and ultimately replacing the lead pipes. While federal funding provides new impetus to accelerate timelines to get the work done as quickly as possible, until there is an accurate assessment of how many lead pipes are out there, estimates for how long it will take for the job to be completed are at best educated guesses.
As the water crisis in Flint, Michigan revealed, lead service lines are costly and time consuming to fix. With the potential of increased federal political will to address the issue, and more importantly, provide funding, there is some optimism that lead pipes will be a thing of the past – if only ten years (and several tens of billions of dollars) in the future.