Jeramey Jannene
Urban Ideas

Fix Lead Poisoning, Not Lead Pipes

Biden proposes to get rid of lead pipes, but his plan falls far short of tackling lead poisoning.

By - Apr 12th, 2021 06:16 pm
Lead lateral diagram from the Milwaukee Water Works. Image from the City of Milwaukee.

Lead lateral diagram from the Milwaukee Water Works. Image from the City of Milwaukee.

President Joe Biden‘s $2 trillion infrastructure plan includes $45 billion to replace every lead service line in America.

It’s a laudable moonshot and a great talking point for a politician. But it falls far short of what’s needed to eliminate lead poisoning.

For one, it’s unlikely to be enough money to get the job done. A 2018 estimate concluded that it would cost $750 million to replace Milwaukee’s remaining lead service lines (laterals). The Environmental Protection Agency estimates it should cost an average of $4,700 to replace a service line, but, as of March 2020, the City of Milwaukee was replacing approximately 1,000 per year at a cost of $10,783 each. It has approximately 73,000 to go.

There are two other major problems with the initiative.

One, the service line isn’t the only source of lead in water. Internal plumbing can be made of lead or contain lead solder, a practice banned in 1985. A 2016 study of Milwaukee Public Schools‘ 191 buildings (free of lead service lines) found that six percent of the water fountains emitted lead-contaminated water in excess of the EPA’s 15 parts per billion threshold. The city of Madison replaced all of its lead laterals, but 38% of homes tested still show the presence of lead in the water.

A 2008 study found that as much as 50% of lead in water doesn’t originate with the service line. If you want to get all of the lead out of water, you must replace all of the lead pipes, not just the service line.

The other major issue, and the key one, is that there is not a direct correlation between the presence of a lead service line and lead poisoning. Viewing the problem of lead poisoning as one that originates from only water ignores that lead paint is the leading source of lead poisoning in Milwaukee.

Two maps of the city prove the point. The 14th aldermanic district, which includes Bay View and a handful of other southside neighborhoods, has the greatest number of lead service lines. But it has one of the lowest lead poisoning rates among children.

The 15th aldermanic district, particularly the area between W. Center St., W. Juneau Ave., N. 27th St. and N. Sherman Blvd., has fewer lead pipes, but a lead poisoning rate more than four times as high. It is also the city’s most impoverished district.

So what to do? Instead of spending the money solely on replacing lead service lines, cities should be able to spend on any lead remediation. That would allow a city like Milwaukee to pour resources into the most afflicted areas, replacing not just lead service lines, but internal plumbing, and on remediating peeling lead paint. If any amount of lead poisoning is bad, the city should be going after any source of lead poisoning.

Areas like Bay View, where the lead poisoning rate is substantially lower, could be mitigated with a short-term strategy of lead water filters and home inspections for lead hazards. The city could continue its policies of requiring replacement of lead laterals in the event of breaks or nearby water main replacement, while creating an incentive structure for voluntary replacements.

If the Biden administration wants to actually address lead poisoning and the numerous public health issues it creates, it needs to actually address lead poisoning, not the lead-in-water talking point.

What happens if the whole infrastructure plan fails? The City of Milwaukee will continue to very slowly address the issue. It’s on a 70-year pace to replace its lead service lines. Lead paint abatement isn’t going much faster. The city has abated more than 17,000 properties since 2004, spending $66 million. It received a $5.6 million, 42-month lead paint and soil abatement grant in 2019, estimated to cover 320 homes.

Any house built before 1978, which accounts for most of the houses in the city, is likely to include lead paint. The last lead service line in the city was installed in 1962. The city’s water mains do not contain lead.


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Categories: Health, Urban Ideas

One thought on “Urban Ideas: Fix Lead Poisoning, Not Lead Pipes”

  1. sbaldwin001 says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful summary of the problem. Wholesale replacement of service lines is a waste of money. Run this by an expert, but I wonder if providing reliable water and paint chip test kits at a small price to city residents, as well as information about painting over lead paint with encapsulating paint, would be a good first step.

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