Lead Is Still A Problem In The U.S. - Here's Why
The Problem That Isn't Going Anywhere
It’s common, when revisiting an older project, for someone to interject with the refrain: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And sometimes this idea has merit.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to take this approach with America’s water infrastructure. Since the industrial revolution, when a lion’s share of public infrastructure projects first began, the government has been strategically working to roll out updates to many of these projects, e.g. roads. Alas, when it comes to projects that are more substantial in scope, for example water pipes, frequent updates are less feasible. And while there have been some improvements to the underground water system, it’s hard to keep up given the expansiveness of the U.S. plumbing system.
So far, this has been an unsuccessful endeavor. Sure, overall, the U.S. has a solid underground pipe system that provides clean water to the public, but aging pipes have already led to some serious negative consequences in the form of lead leaching.
Cases of lead poisoning are increasing
A recent study found that lead poisoning is responsible for 10 times more deaths than previously estimated. The research, published in The Lancet Public Health, found that 412,000 people die annually from lead poisoning in the United States.
Lead poisoning can lead to learning difficulty, irritability, weight loss, hearing loss, fatigue, seizures, and as this research suggests, even death. Read more about the affects of lead on the body here.
The study also found that approximately 18 percent of deaths caused by lead poisoning were preventable. Although the research didn’t break down how people were ingesting lead, it’s probable that a portion was ingested through drinking water.
The Outdated Water Infrastructure
The water infrastructure (or delivery system) in the U.S. is sort of “broke” already. Over time, the government has been improving the water treatment process, but the U.S. water delivery system has remained largely the same. The effects of this on water quality (and the prevalence of lead in drinking water) have emerged.
If a house was built before 1986, there is a good chance it has lead plumbing. This is no small thing – United States census data from 2000 shows approximately 83 percent of homes were built before 1989.
Even if the house was built after 1986, its plumbing may still contain lead (the government still used lead to solder pipes). Between 1986 and 2014, “lead-free” plumbing was defined as plumbing that contained less than 8 percent lead. This is still an incredibly large and unsafe percentage. For reference, after 2014, lead-free plumbing was redefined as plumbing that contained 0.25 percent lead.
With this in mind, there is one basic fact that informs the entire lead discussion. Lead, at any level, is unsafe.
This is incredibly important. Sure, if someone consumes trace amounts of lead, they will not experience any negative ramifications, but lead bio-accumulates, which means it collects in the body over time.
Lead in Flint and D.C.
In recent memory, there have been two high-profile lead-related water crises.
First, in 2001, there was a serious lead contamination controversy in Washington D.C. The public treatment facility sourcing D.C. water had just switched from chlorine to chloramine to disinfect its water. This change caused a significant increase in the levels of lead in their drinking water.
After surveying the issue, authorities found the increase in lead was the result of aging lead pipes, as well as the specific chemistry of D.C.’s water. Some regions, including Greenville, North Carolina also experienced a rise in lead after switching to chloramine, while other areas, like San Francisco, did not.
Just over a decade later, in Flint, Michigan, city officials were considering a switch from one water provider, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, to the Karegnondi Water Authority in a move that would save the city money. As a part of the transition, the city of Flint was set to switch back to temporarily sourcing its public drinking water from the Flint River.
After transitioning to using Flint River water, residents began complaining about the water quality. It wasn’t until about one year after complaints first started that a research team from Virginia Tech tested water at several Flint homes and found ‘serious’ levels of lead in the water. In early 2018, for the first time since the controversy first began, officials reported that the water quality in Flint has finally been restored.
The news of Flint’s water quality is bittersweet. First, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced that lead levels in Flint’s public drinking water falls below the national limit. That still doesn’t mean the drinking water is lead-free, and as noted above, no amount of lead is safe.
Although Flint and DC are high-profile examples of lead poisoning, they are unfortunately not the only instances of lead leaching into drinking water. In the past few years, reports have put the spotlight on a few other locales that are also experiencing high levels of lead in the water, including towns in Wisconsin and Maryland.
The route to lead-free water
There is a way to eventually phase out aging pipes that have the potential of leaching lead, but it’s not cheap and it’s not quick. It will likely require a large-scale infrastructure project that promotes innovation in public drinking water and updates to existing piping.
In the meantime, for anyone feeling wary of his or her drinking water, it doesn’t hurt to check the EPA’s annual Consumer Confidence Report for more detailed information on where water in a city or town is sourced. As an added safety measure, filtration and water treatment is another effective method to rid water of lead. Carbon filters are designed to remove lead and other filtration methods include reverse osmosis and distillation.
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