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New hope for lead pipe abatement efforts

By Linda Schwefel
January 13, 2022

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 abatement 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.

‍The dangers of lead

Lead, a common metal in soil and air, poses greater risks in water pipes. It leaches into drinking water, affecting consumers. In children, low-level lead exposure links to learning disabilities, hearing impairment, and behavioral issues. It also contributes to 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.”

Treated and untreated lead pipes - New hope for lead pipe abatement efforts
Treated and untreated lead pipes
Source: United States Environmental Protection Agency

How widespread is lead?

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. Many of the service lines were installed before there were laws requiring detailed recordkeeping.

‍At long last, addressing the problem

The biggest hurdle to replacing lead service lines is the cost. Replacing each lead service line costs between $5,000 and $10,000, a significant burden for many communities. The Biden-Harris Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan offers funding for these replacements. This includes lines owned by homeowners, municipalities, or utilities. The plan facilitates the completion of essential replacement work. 

‍The use of inspections to get the job done

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. Federal funding accelerates the timeline for lead pipe replacement. However, without knowing the exact number of lead pipes, completion time estimates remain educated guesses.

‍Final thoughts

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.

Why wait?

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