Backgrounder: Lead in Drinking Water Remains Widespread Problem
By Joseph A. Davis
While the water crisis in Flint, Mich., lingers on, it is becoming clear that the problem of toxic lead in people’s drinking water is widespread across the United States, as are stories about it for journalists to pursue.
There are Flint disasters happening, or waiting to happen, across much of the United States, especially in the aging water systems of the Eastern states. Many news outlets have already found serious lead problems, whether in schools or systemwide. Locations are widespread: Buffalo, Newark, Providence, Atlanta and Chicago, to name only a few.
|U.S. Environmental Protection Agency technician Christy Muhlen at its research lab in Cincinnati synthesizes lead particles to investigate lead corrosion. Photo: EPA, Flickr Creative Commons
Broader surveys using EPA data suggest the problem is pervasive. One was published in 2016 by the Natural Resources Defense Council. USA TODAY found lead problems in the water at hundreds of schools, also in 2016.
And problems may be worse than that, because some utilities encourage test methods that understate the problem. A 2016 investigative project by Reuters found lead poisoning worse than Flint’s in thousands of U.S. locales, although drinking water was hardly the only cause.
It’s no small concern. Lead poisoning is already known to be a serious public health issue in the United States, especially with younger children, who suffer permanent neurological damage as a result. Drinking water is one important way that lead gets into people’s bodies (lead paint is worse), although it’s also something that public agencies and utilities can do something about. But as the Flint story illustrates, that is not easy.
How lead leads to health problems
Regardless of how it happens, ingesting lead causes serious health effects. In fact, the American Public Health Association has called lead poisoning “one of the most prevalent and preventable health problems in the United States today.”
Once it gets into the bloodstream, lead is distributed to the brain, liver and kidneys, and accumulates in the bones and teeth. In young children, lead can cause permanent damage to the brain and nervous system, among other effects. In adults, it can cause high blood pressure and kidney damage.
Lead is also released from the mother’s bones during pregnancy, exposing the fetus. In pregnant women, lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, low birth weight and minor birth defects, according to the World Health Organization.
No amount of lead in the blood stream is considered safe. Public health researchers have progressively lowered the blood concentration considered to be of concern in recent decades. Today, the “reference level” for lead in children’s blood is 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL).
“Today at least 4 million households have children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead,” the Centers for Disease Control recently stated. “There are approximately half a million U.S. children ages 1-5 with blood lead levels above 5 µg/dL.”
Poor and minority children are at higher risk
of lead poisoning, because they are more likely
to live in older housing, which usually has lead paint.
And that is an educated guess, because not every kid is tested, and test results are not always accurate. Many pediatricians, however, consider it good practice to routinely screen young children for lead, especially when they belong to low-income families.
Poor and minority children are at higher risk of lead poisoning, because they are more likely to live in older housing, which usually has lead paint. Children ingest paint chips, or may be exposed to soil which has been contaminated with dust from lead paint.
Paint is only one of the uses to which lead has been put during the industrial era. Ore smelters often emit large amounts of lead. Leaded gasoline was a major source of lead exposure in the United States until it was phased out entirely in 1995. Lead is still found today in some consumer products, often imported ones.
How lead gets into drinking water
Children and adults have both been exposed to toxic levels of lead via drinking water. Since the Flint crisis, this route of exposure has gotten major media attention. The ways that lead gets into drinking water are not always obvious.
Lead was indeed used for water pipes in many places for a long time (it is commonly believed that the decline of the Roman empire was caused in part by their invention of lead pipes, a plausible theory that has not stood up well to scrutiny), partly because it is plentiful, relatively durable and easily workable. Eventually it was largely replaced by other materials which had their own advantages: concrete, cast iron, galvanized iron, brass, copper, polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, and polyethylene, or PEX, to name some.
In many cities, especially those with older water systems, you can still find lead “service lines,” the pipe connecting household pipes to the water main under the street. Visible evidence of this is a bulbous connection where pipes come into the house.
Lead service lines and other lead pipes are indeed one important source of lead in drinking water, but they are not the only one. Copper pipe is quite common in U.S. houses and buildings, and for many years copper and brass pipe was joined by means of solder containing lead (no longer legal for water systems). Copper pipes also once contained a small amount of lead to make the metal ductile.
Fixtures can also contain lead. It may come from the pipe or solder. Water coolers commonly found in schools and other institutions have contaminated water with lead, typically from solder or lead-lined tanks. Congress called on schools to address lead-containing water coolers in the Lead Contamination Control Act of 1988, but not all schools have yet done so.
When a water system contains lead, the lead can leach into the water. Then we drink it, and that is how it gets to be a problem.
A lot of the problem happens at
the customer’s end of the pipe,
not at the utility’s end.
The leaching of lead into water is not a simple thing. Many drinking-water pipes, especially old ones, are lined by a coating of scale consisting of minerals that have precipitated out of the water, as well as by other yucky stuff (“biofilm” — don’t ask). This interior scale coating isolates the lead pipe material from the water, preventing most leaching. The scale can be disturbed for many reasons, allowing more leaching.
The scale coating is affected by water chemistry. Water that is more acidic (pH below 7) can dissolve scale and corrode pipe, putting lead into the water. Drinking water providers often put a small amount of orthophosphate into the water to inhibit corrosion. In the case of Flint, the city failed to add orthophosphate to its system, accelerating the corrosion of lead.
Other ingredients in treated drinking water can affect its corrosivity. One is chloride, which accelerates corrosion. Chloride levels are affected by the disinfectant the water utility uses to keep the drinking water safe microbiologically. Typically these have included chlorine gas and chloramines.
Another possible source of chlorides is road salt in the system’s raw water. Changes to a system’s chemistry — such as changing disinfectants or switching source water — can affect chemistry. Unless the changed system is adjusted by expert operators and the results monitored, bad things can happen, including lead in the water. In a nutshell, that is what happened in Flint.
How EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule does (and doesn’t) work
One reason the Flint disaster should not have happened is that drinking water experts have known all about these problems, generically, for a long time.
As far back as 1991, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued something called the Lead and Copper Rule using the authority Congress gave it under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Congress prompted EPA to act on this in a set of amendments to the SDWA passed in 1986. In another set of amendments passed in 1996, Congress tried to ratchet up pressure to solve the problem. Those amendments banned lead materials in water systems.
The Lead and Copper Rule mandated changes throughout drinking water systems above a certain size, aimed at minimizing lead in drinking water. It required utilities to test the final drinking water coming from a sample of the final taps in the system, and to test it after the water had been resting in the pipes for a given time, so that any lead problem could not be disguised by running water to flush the pipes. Utilities didn’t have to test every faucet, but instead use statistical sampling methods. If too many taps had lead above a certain level, the utility had to take action, primarily by informing customers and trying to change customer behavior.
EPA has revised the Lead and Copper Rule several times in hopes of improving the fix. Another one has been pending at EPA for years, but has not gone through (and is less likely to do so under the Trump administration). The Obama EPA was criticized for this.
A report by EPA's Office of the Inspector General found that EPA's Region 5 delayed issuing the Flint emergency order for some five months after it knew that serious failures required it. Photo: Ford School of Public Policy, Flickr Creative Commons
One reason it is hard for the feds to fix the lead-in-water problem is that it is not all centralized. A lot of the problem happens at the customer’s end of the pipe, not at the utility’s end.
Yes, utilities should manage water chemistry, monitor lead at the tap, inform customers of the results and inform them of what they can do. But ultimately the federal government can’t (or won’t) force private customers to do something. A voluntary approach is all that is politically possible, but a voluntary approach has its limits.
Another reason the feds haven’t yet fixed the lead-in-water problem is that it is very expensive. Replacing all the lead service lines in the country would just be a start, and Congress is not right now inclined to write multibillion-dollar checks to pay for the work. No politician wants to ask ratepayers and taxpayers to pay more.
Some local governments have been plodding slowly and steadily on this course for years, with work paid for by local taxpayers and ratepayers. Despite talk of infrastructure programs by the president and Congress, nothing seems yet to be forthcoming.
Fixes take time as well as money. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office looked at a selected set of older cities and found that aging infrastructure, declining populations and financial hardship combine to slow any fixes.
There is another reason the Flint crisis happened — in spite of the Lead and Copper Rule: politics, federalism, local control and states’ rights. This was made clear during the raucous House hearings on Flint in the spring of 2016.
State and local governments are extremely jealous about power and control. The Safe Drinking Water Act, like other major environmental laws, sets up a delicate balance between federal and state power. The states want to be, and are supposed to be, the actual enforcers. When they don’t enforce, there is failure, which is what happened in Flint. Doing nothing is a common government solution to conflict — until it isn't a solution.
But when state governments and local utilities fail to enforce, SDWA allows EPA to step in. If they do, of course, state politicians often criticize EPA for “overreach.” But if they don’t, innocent people will drink toxic water. So in the Flint case, where the state failed to enforce, EPA hesitated, covered up and then scapegoated the one courageous employee who tried to intervene, Miguel Del Toral.
Solving the problem
Flint would not have happened if EPA, the states and utilities had truly learned from a hauntingly similar (but bigger) disaster in Washington, D.C., in 2004.
High lead levels were found at many of the city’s taps, resulting from a chemistry change. It was originally exposed by local journalists. After the denials and cover-ups, the city finally buckled down to a long program of replacing lead service lines and getting it paid for. So one solution is for states, cities and utilities to take their heads out of the sand.
The Flint crisis finally came unstuck after EPA’s administrator used her SDWA authority to issue an “emergency order.” Emergency orders are hard to get. An October 20, 2016, report by EPA's Office of the Inspector General found that EPA's Region 5 delayed issuing the Flint emergency order for some five months after it knew that serious failures required it.
But the Flint emergency order was unusual. SDWA emergency orders are rare, according to expert Timothy Bergere.
Flint’s problems also started toward a solution when the state of Michigan and the Congress, bowing to immense political pressure, coughed up serious money to fix the problem.
Public pressure helps — whether it comes from news media, voters or politicians. But unless the public knows EPA can intervene and asks EPA to do so, emergency orders will remain rare. Of course, emergency orders are a kind of "nuclear option." There are a range of less-drastic enforcement measures available for EPA to take — if it chooses to.
Informing the public of potential health threats is a critical part of any government response (and legally required). Yet in Flint, the problem was made worse by deliberate failure to inform water users. It is news media, activists and citizen groups who often do the informing. Flint demonstrated that, too.
If a local drinking water utility is failing to notify customers of a lead-in-water violation, that may be grounds for legal action or an EPA emergency order. It may also be reason for another journalistic exposé.
Joseph A. Davis is director of SEJ’s WatchDog Project, and writes SEJournal Online’s Backgrounders and TipSheet columns.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 21. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.