U.S. Cities with High Levels of Lead in Drinking Water

Aging infrastructure and poor management are leading to a rise in lead issues in many cities across the U.S.

By: Alyssa Scavetta

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, this is not the approach to take with America’s water infrastructure. Because, well, frankly it is broken. 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 where they’re “most” needed, like 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 water to the public, but aging pipes have already led (pun intended) to some serious negative consequences in the form of lead leaching into your drinking water.

Cases of lead poisoning are increasing

A recent study found that lead poisoning is responsible for 10 times more deaths than originally estimated. The research, published in The Lancet Public Health, found that 412,000 people die annually from lead poisoning in the United States. That’s more than five times the number of people who died from the flu last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Lead poisoning can lead to learning difficulty, irritability, weight loss, hearing loss, fatigue, seizures, and as this research suggests, even death.

The study also found that approximately 18 percent of deaths – or 75,000 people – caused by lead poisoning were preventable. Although the research didn’t break down how people were ingesting lead, it’s hypothesized that a large portion was ingested through drinking water.

The outdated water infrastructure

The water infrastructure (or delivery system) in the U.S. is sort of “broken” already. Over time, the government has been improving the water treatment process, but the U.S. water delivery system has remained largely the same.

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.

"United States census data from 2000 shows approximately 83 percent of homes were built before 1989."

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 a long period of time.

Lead in Washington D.C.

In recent memory, there have been a few 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 because chloramines have longer staying power than chlorine which caused greater corrosion to the lead in pipes and solder.

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.

Lead in Flint, Michigan

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.

As of early 2018, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced that lead levels in Flint’s public drinking water fall below the national limit for the first time since the crisis began.

By the end of 2018, more than 15,031 pipes have been redone for residences in Flint; the Flint Department of Public Works sent a letter to the EPA detailing that there are still 14,000 lead-based lines within the region, however by July of 2018, the “DEQ announced that… of the 420 filtered water samples from Flint Public Schools tested, 100 percent were below 15 parts per billion of lead, and more than 99 percent met the 5 ppb bottled water standard”. That still doesn’t mean the drinking water is lead-free, and as noted above, no amount of lead is safe.

Image courtesy of Britannica

Although Flint and D.C. are high-profile examples of lead poisoning, they are unfortunately not the only instances. In the past few years, reports have put the spotlight on a few other locales including towns in Wisconsin, Maryland, and the whole of Chicago.

Lead in Chicago

Drinking from a fountain with higher-than-advisable lead levels one time is unlikely to cause any harm. However, drinking consistently from a contaminated source can result in a number of diseases according to the Washington Post. Especially in young children who are the most susceptible to developing permanent learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

Avid park goers, summer day camp and joggers are just a few of the groups who could be affected by lead-contaminated drinking fountains. That’s why it’s such a huge deal that lead was discovered at 15 parts-per-billion (PPB) in 445 out of the city’s 1,891 drinking fountains.

But disposable bottles can't solve the issue

When a lead crisis takes over a municipality or a region, sales on bottled and disposable water skyrocket. It’s not a bad alternative, but it’s only a stopgap — not a long-term solution. Moreover, it’s environmental impacts do more harm than good.

The FDA reports that Americans consumed more than 7.5 million gallons of bottled water in 2005. Since then, demand has increased significantly and now, the FDA continues “only carbonated soft drinks out-sell bottled water.” This high rate of consumption has had a major environmental impact; just take a look at the National Geographic’s coverage of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

With billions of tiny plastic pieces already swirling around in our oceans, an additional 275+ metric tons of plastic waste per year is simply not acceptable. But that’s the reality according to environmental scientists who calculated the waste generated by 192 coastal countries in 2010.

Besides the environmental costs, the cost of bottled water is staggering. The “Story of Stuff” creator Annie Leonard estimates that bottled water costs about 2000 times more than tap water. At about $0.56 per bottle, even if you only drink two bottles per day that amounts to $409 per year. You can’t afford to be drinking bottled water, and neither can the world.

"Besides the environmental costs, the cost of bottled water is staggering…bottled water costs about 2000 times more than tap water."

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 is another effective method to rid water of lead. Dense carbon filters and reverse osmosis are two filtration methods designed to remove lead.

The Aquasana Stainless Steel Filter Bottle is a sustainable and affordable alternative. It is available in glass or BPA-free plastic; it can be easily tucked into a purse or day bag and filled at a fountain with confidence.

Our biggest advancement yet, the OptimH2O® Whole House Filter, is a first-of-its-kind system, IAPMO certified to NSF/ANSI Standard 53 to reduce more than 99% of lead and cysts, 98% of PFOA/PFOS, as well as chlorine, chloramines and more.

With lead and other contaminants filling the news and your water supply, considering a carefully crafted filtering option just makes sense.



Tested and certified to reduce lead, cysts, and PFOA/PFOS, plus tackles chlorine and chloramines.