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Editorial: The clock is ticking on lead pipes

by C&EN editorial staff
May 6, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 14


It’s an ambitious plan. Costing about $30 billion with a 10-year deadline, the US Environmental Protection Agency wants water utilities to replace each of the country’s estimated 9.2 million lead service lines that bring drinking water to homes. Its aim is to combat exposure to a potent neurotoxin—lead.

A rusted lead pipe.
Credit: Brittany Greeson/Getty Images
A lead line collected during the Flint, Michigan water crisis.

Public health officials have long known that lead harms human health, especially that of young children. Scientists have found that exposure to even low levels of lead can be problematic, and its behavioral and neurological effects in kids may be irreversible. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no lead concentrations are considered safe in children. But widespread use in some parts of the world, including in fossil fuels, paint, plumbing, and cosmetics, has meant that lead is ubiquitous in the environment.

The EPA estimates that drinking water accounts for about 20% of an individual’s lead exposure in the US. For infants consuming formula, drinking water’s contribution to lead exposure could be as high as 60%.

The case of Flint, Michigan—our cover story for this issue—serves as a frightening reminder of how lead’s leaching from corroding pipes into drinking water can unleash an environmental and public health disaster. More than 100,000 people were exposed to dangerous lead concentrations, and pediatricians noted elevated blood lead levels in children. To this day—a decade since the water crisis unfolded—Flint residents grapple with the lethal legacy of lead. Many adults have physical and mental health issues, including hypertension, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder, while learning disorders and hyperactivity are frequent diagnoses among Flint children.

Aside from Flint, lead-tainted drinking water has been a problem in several other US cities. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Baltimore; Chicago; Detroit; Milwaukee; Newark, New Jersey; New York City; Pittsburgh; and Washington, DC have recorded high levels of lead in tap water. Several towns and cities have initiated programs or already begun to replace lead service lines.

Some areas engage in full replacements, meaning that the entire lead service line, regardless of whether it’s on public or private property, will be removed. The partial option typically entails water utilities replacing only the part of the lead service line that it owns.

The EPA discourages partial pipe replacements because they may elevate lead levels in the water from the pipe-cutting process or electrochemical reactions with copper pipes that are swapped for lead ones.

But there are challenges to full lead pipe replacement. The process is expensive, and many homeowners will need water utilities to bear the full costs. Without that financial help, low-income households, often including communities of color, will continue to be disproportionately exposed to lead. Environmental activists also hope that government agencies will prioritize neighborhoods with a higher prevalence of lead service lines, which tend to be in areas where people of color live.

But many cities don’t know exactly how many lead pipes are in their water systems and where they might be. In August 2023, the Associated Press reported that four states—Washington, Oregon, Maine, and Alaska—rejected all or most of the federal funds in the form of grants and loans to find and replace lead pipes. The states cited hesitancy to take out loans to search for the lead pipes. Washington officials also mentioned that local water agencies were not interested in applying for this federal funding.

How the EPA will overcome these hurdles remains to be seen. The clock is ticking. A 2023 NRDC report suggests that replacing all lead service lines supplying drinking water could save the US about $786 billion in health-related costs over the next 35 years. Meanwhile, reducing exposure to lead is an ongoing conversation in many other parts of the world as well, given the harm lead causes, especially among children.

This editorial is the result of collective deliberation in C&EN. For this week’s editorial, lead contributor is Priyanka Runwal.

Views expressed on this page are not necessarily those of ACS.­


This article was updated on May 29, 2024, to clarify that the widespread use of lead in fossil fuels, paint, plumbing, and cosmetics refers to global use, not the US specifically.


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