Published: Saturday, 13 November 2021 16:51
Experts say children are particularly vulnerable to the health issues caused by lead in water pipes. Yellow Sarah/Getty Images
- The recently approved $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill contains $15 billion to replace aging water pipes across the country.
- Experts say this program is important because of the long lasting health effects of lead in water supplies, especially to children under age 5.
- They note there are ways to test for lead in your home water supply.
- They also say replacing old pipes is a good investment because healthy drinking water significantly reduces public health costs.
After months of wrangling, Congress has approved a $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal providing, among other things, nearly $36 billion for improving the nation’s water systems.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls it “the single largest investment in water that the federal government has ever made.”
The allocations include nearly $12 billion to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, with another $4 billion to the fund earmarked specifically for “emerging contaminants” as well as $5 billion to Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation grants.
But perhaps the most significant investment in terms of long-term health impacts is the $15 billion set aside for lead service line replacement to begin overhauling and reducing lead contamination in the nation’s water systems.
The highly toxic metal, once used in gasoline, paint, and jewelry, is deadly in large quantities but can also cause physical damage to people in minuscule amounts.
So, experts say, any lead presence in our water systems is a matter of grave concern.
“Lead is not a naturally occurring issue in surface water,” John Gautreaux, a senior water treatment plant operator in Houma, Louisiana, told Healthline.
“Any lead that enters our plant would likely be removed in our treatment process. But many water systems across America still have lead transmission lines, and many homes (especially older ones) have lead pipes, fixtures, and solders. All of this allows lead to leach into drinking water,” he said.
“Hopefully, the bill will allow agencies to test more homes for it and ideally provide funds to get those lines changed out,” Gautreaux said.
Lead’s long lasting effects
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, there’s no amount of lead in the body that is considered safe, with children under age 5 being especially vulnerable to its effects.
“We know that lead harms brain development in fetuses and children, causes loss of intelligence, behavioral, and attention deficits, and developmental delays,” said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, MPH, founder and director of the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, in Flint, Michigan, as well as a professor of public health at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in the division of public health.
Multiple studies have shown that early exposure to lead can lead to increased aggressiveness as well as criminal behavior, loss in academic performance, and loss of lifetime income.
“We also know that it hits some kids harder. Children of Color, especially Black children, and low-income kids shoulder a greater burden of lead exposure,” Hanna-Attisha told Healthline.
“Studies show that drinking water violations, like many environmental health threats, disproportionately plague lower-income communities and Communities of Color,” she said.
Those lifelong effects are among the reasons that the city of Flint, Michigan — which has been dealing with lead-contaminated drinking water for years — was recently awarded a $626 million partial settlement to cover damage incurred to residents during its water crisis.
How to test for lead
If you want to test for lead in your home’s drinking water, you may be able to request a test from your state’s department of health, experts say.
Otherwise, tests can be purchased online, but you may need to test more than once to be sure.
“Lead in water sampling is very variable and can depend on the time of day, season, type of collection bottle, and other factors. A one-time sample is not reliable to ensure no future lead release,” Hanna-Attisha explained.
“If you think there is lead in your plumbing, the most important thing to do is to prevent any ongoing exposure. This can be done with a lead clearing filter or alternative water (like bottled water) and other lead-reducing practices (flushing, using cold water, cleaning aerator, etc.),” she said.
“Bottled water is regulated by the FDA and, as such, has a lower lead action level. These precautions are especially important for vulnerable populations like pregnant moms and babies on reconstituted formulas,” Hanna-Attisha said.
Public health and smart economics
The EPA estimates there are 6 million to 10 million lead pipes in cities and towns in the United States.
The infrastructure bill’s $15 billion could put a dent in that, but it’s unlikely to be enough to fix the nation’s lead problem on its own.
“A back-of-the-envelope calculation based on EPA’s estimate of average replacement cost per line ($4,700) and assumption of 6 to 10 million lead service lines across the country suggests the cost could range from $28 billion to $47 billion, putting Biden’s originally proposed $45 billion near the top of that range, but the $15 billion legislated well below it,” reported the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think tank.
“With the new funding, we can anticipate some or modest reduction in these problems,” said Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University.
“Targeted funding for disadvantaged communities can help as well, because these communities have the highest burden of lead-related problems,” he said.
Because of these long-term health impacts, which affect not only people’s ability to thrive but their productivity and overall public safety, the economic benefit of replacing lead pipes is clear.
Multiple studies by nonpartisan groups and state health agencies have shown a more than a 2-to-1 return on investment for replacing lead pipes.
President Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which has yet to be finalized, would add as much as another $30 billion to the lead remediation budget if passed in its present form.
“What is somewhat disconcerting is that lead-based pipes were banned in the 1980s, and we are still struggling with this problem after more than 3 decades,” Khubchandani told Healthline.
“We must consider this as a good return on investment opportunity as children are the future of the nation, and no compromise on such funding should be made, which would mean we need bipartisan and community support,” he said.
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