Milwaukee, Wisconsin 2021-05-04 11:16:20 –
President Joe Biden’s infrastructure program includes a proposal to improve the US drinking water system by removing and replacing dangerous lead pipes.
As a geochemist and environmental health researcher who has been studying the tragic effects of lead poisoning on children for decades, pay close attention to this silent killer, which has a disproportionate impact on poorly colored people. I’m glad to see you being struck.
Biden’s proposal includes US $ 45 billion to eliminate all lead pipes and service lines nationwide. Funds will be sent to a program managed by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
This effort will affect an estimated 6 to 10 million homes, along with 400,000 schools and childcare facilities. I think it’s one of the country’s best chances to finally take the lead from the country’s drinking water and its children.
Lead poisoning causes permanent damage
Lead poisoning poses a major threat to public health, as lead has a lasting effect on the brain, especially in children. When people are young, their brains still form an amazing network of neurons that make up their hardware.
Neurons are designed to use calcium, the most abundant mineral in the human body, as a transmitter to quickly pass signals. Lead molecules are very similar to calcium molecules, so lead can penetrate the brain. If lead is present in the child’s body, it can impair neuronal development and cause permanent nerve damage.
Children with lead poisoning have low IQ, poor memory recall, a high incidence of attention deficit disorder, and poor impulse regulation. They tend to perform poorly at school, which reduces their income potential as adults. Also, as you age, your risk of kidney disease, stroke, and high blood pressure increases. Studies show that there is a strong link between lead poisoning and imprisonment for violent crimes.
The prevalence of childhood lead poisoning has declined significantly in the United States over the last 50 years. This is mainly due to the abolition of leaded gasoline in the 1980s and the ban on most lead-based paints.
In the 1970s, nearly 90% of children aged 1 to 5 years in the United States had blood lead levels in excess of 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood. This was a “level of concern” according to federal health guidelines. Today, about 2% of children in the United States have elevated blood lead levels, according to people at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This decline is a success story, but researchers estimate that about 500,000 US children are still raising blood lead levels. In 2012, the CDC adopted a new “standard” for more than 5 micrograms of blood lead per deciliter.
Health experts widely agree that there are no known “safe” blood lead levels. And as long as lead water pipes are used, children and families will be vulnerable.
No map of lead service lines
Like many US bridges, roads, and harbors, the American water system is old. Much of the drinking water infrastructure in the old town was built before 1950, before researchers began working on lead toxicity.
In most American cities, countless miles of lead service lines are buried under streets and sidewalks to supply people’s homes. The utility does not know where many of these lines are and does not have enough data to map them. Replacing them requires important analysis, modeling, data, and guessing.
Older service lines are causing repeated outbreaks of lead poisoning in places like Washington, DC. Flint, Michigan; Newark, NJ. Chemistry is a little different in each case.
Lead service lines usually form a mineral protective “plaque” on the inner wall after a short period of time. This effectively separates the toxic lead pipe from the flowing water. This coating, called scale, remains stable unless the chemistry of the water passing through it changes. However, changes in its chemistry can lead to disasters.
In 2002, Washington DC transitioned from chlorine to chloramines to treat water supplies. Chloramine is a more modern disinfectant that does not form the dangerous reactive chlorination by-products of chlorine.
This caused the protective plaques lined up in the city’s pipes to corrode rapidly, causing highly absorbent lead to flow into the house. Tens of thousands of children were exposed in two years before the problem was properly identified and corrected.
In Flint, state-appointed managers decided to save money by switching from Detroit water to Flint River water during the 2014 financial crisis. Flint river water has a completely different corrosiveness than Detroit water, but authorities did not require sufficient chemical analysis to know which additives should be used to maintain pipe plaque. did. To save about $ 100 a day, stopping the typical procedure of adding phosphate that chemically bonds with lead and prevents leachation from the pipe is a terrible and ultimately toxic decision. It was one.
Corrosive chemistry is well controlled in many cities in the United States, but it is not a complete science. Also, utilities do not always have detection systems that properly alert water suppliers to dangers at water taps. That’s why removing lead pipes is the only surefire way to avoid the threat of further water crises.
Cities need to innovate
$ 45 billion is a huge investment, but in my opinion it’s probably not enough to replace all lead pipes across the country. Take Flint as an example. The estimated cost of replacing all major service lines in the city is approximately $ 50 million. As a rough calculation, for $ 45 billion, the United States can treat slightly less than 1,000 flints.
But there are literally thousands of US cities to improve. Some are smaller than flint, so they are less expensive to repair, while others are much larger.
My town, Indianapolis, has a population of about 850,000. This is about 10 times larger than Flint, which means 10 times more households and water distribution endpoints. In addition, authorities have only a rough idea of where to find the main service lines in the city. There are ways to statistically model the likelihood of a lead service line in a particular part of the water system, using information such as the size, location, and date of construction of the water main, but they are incomplete.
Cities will have to show ingenuity to make as much of any money they get as possible. As an example, I’m working with a colleague to develop a citizen science project that provides thousands of tests for lead at faucets around Indianapolis. This work is the result of a partnership with the University of Notre Dame funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which could enhance modeling with real-world data on lead levels in homes, raising public awareness of this threat. Probably.
Lead water pipes are carving time bombs in cities across the United States. Urgent attention should also be paid to other important causes of lead exposure, such as soil and dust contamination. However, I believe that replacing the water system is an important step in protecting children from the lifelong burden of lead poisoning.
– Gabriel Filippelli is the director of the Urban Health Center at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.