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Lead Contamination Poses Hazards Far Beyond Flint

In Washington DC, pipes that serve the White House and Congress were installed at the time of the Civil War — and engineers estimate a rebuild of the nation's aging water infrastructure would cost $1 trillion over 25 years.
Photo by Rebecca Cook/Reuters

They may not have all the same ingredients that produced a national fiasco in Flint, Michigan, but other American cities have been giving the side-eye to their old lead pipes.

The neurotoxic heavy metal has been banned in paint since the 1970s, in plumbing since the 1980s, and gasoline since the 1990s. But it's still a hazard in older cities, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, where lines laid down decades ago still carry water, said Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University's law school.


"The older the city, the older the housing stock, and the poorer the neighborhood, the more likely you are to have risk," Loeb said. Lead lingers in urban soil, and studies have shown inner-city children are more likely to have higher blood lead levels than kids from rural areas or suburbs. And while upscale homeowners may live in old houses in the city, "They may be more likely to have a filter on a tap," Loeb said. "They have the resources to buy the filter, and they know to buy the filter. In poor neighborhoods, you have neither of those."

US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules limit lead levels in drinking water to 15 parts per billion. It's particularly harmful to the developing brains of children, causing learning disabilities and behavioral problems. And once the damage is done, "It's not something you outgrow or recover from," Loeb said.

Some scientists have suggested the widespread use of lead in gasoline contributed to the spike in crime that wracked American cities between the 1960s and the 1990s. Others have suggested that its use in ancient Roman pipes — the word "plumbing" and lead's abbreviation on the periodic table, Pb, both come from Latin — helped bring down that empire.

The American Water Works Association has said a nationwide effort to replace old water lines would cost $1 trillion over 25 years, even without removing lead pipes on private property.

The lingering hazard got new attention with the crisis in Flint, where polluted, improperly treated water ate away the protective coating and leached lead out of the aging pipes. An emergency manager, installed by the state's governor to fix the budget of the long-depressed, heavily African-American and disproportionately poor city, approved a switch from a cleaner water source to save money, without requiring additional chemicals to keep the lead out.


It took months for government officials to acknowledge the problem, despite repeated complaints from residents — and left many Flint residents drinking bottled water handed out by National Guard troops, like survivors of a natural disaster. And it's left some people wondering where the next Flint may be.

In the small town of Sebring, Ohio, about 60 miles southeast of Cleveland, state environmental officials last week accused the manager of the local water treatment plant of failing to notify residents of higher-than-allowable levels of lead in water — and playing a "cat-and-mouse game" with regulators who questioned his reports.

The village government has been handing out bottled water since the disclosure, but Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer said her agency believes the problem is limited to fewer than a half-dozen homes with old pipes.

"We are confident that the water supply that is being provided does not have lead in it, and that it is a situation that is impacting a few homes," she said.

The agency has launched both a civil and criminal probe into the plant manager and has ordered the city to offer water testing and health screenings for anyone who wants them. Meanwhile, the local water works has been ordered to adjust its mix of treatment chemicals to reduce pipe corrosion, Griesmer said.

Municipal officials did not return phone calls seeking comment Thursday. But Melanie Houston, director of water policy at the Ohio Environmental Council, said the problems in Sebring shows the need for "swift changes" to the rules that govern testing and disclosure.


"There's a higher level of scrutiny now in the aftermath of what's happening in Flint," she said.

Related: Flint Residents Take Clean Water Fight to Federal Court

Greg DiLoreto, a former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said the combination of polluted water, aging pipes and regulatory failure that produced Flint isn't likely to be reproduced elsewhere. But the organization gave the US drinking water system a D in its most recent report card, with tens of billions of dollars needed to replace worn-out mains and connecting pipe.

"Most of the central cities in this country, their water systems were built in the 1920s," he said. In Washington, pipes that serve the White House and the Capitol were laid down at the time of the Civil War. And even when pipes were made of iron instead of lead, the solder used to join copper household plumbing contained lead that could leach into water lines, too. The American Water Works Association has said a nationwide effort to replace old water lines would cost $1 trillion over 25 years, even without removing lead pipes on private property.

"No engineer ever designed a water system thinking it was going to last 150 years," said DiLoreto, the head of the ASCE's infrastructure committee. "Whether or not it's lead, that's just one issue — the fact is, these things are wearing out."

The EPA requires regular testing of water systems where lead is a suspected contaminant, but Loeb said the tests don't focus on the most lead-prone areas. Nor has the EPA adopted the Centers for Disease Control's new, tighter warning level for lead levels in the children, a lack of action she called "outrageous." And while a variety of agencies offer funding to replace old pipes, there's "a limited source and a long line" for the money, she said.


"This is another place where our failure to pay attention and invest in our infrastructure is really coming home to roost," Loeb said.

"Part of what's supposed to make the United States the United States, someplace where people can feel comfortable drinking the water, is we're supposed to have good, safe water systems and know how to treat it," she added. "And we're letting it fall apart."

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl

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