“Drinking through a lead straw” — $ 15 billion approved for repairing dangerous water pipes

Houston — No one knows exactly how many lead pipes supply water to homes, schools, businesses, or even where they are across the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are at least 6 million lead service lines. Environmental groups say there are probably more.

It is known that a sip of boiling sweet potato pots, reconstituted bottles of milk powder, or tap water supplied through lead pipes risks millions of Americans ingesting lead. There is sex. adult.

Joseph Kane, a Fellow focused on the Brookings Institution’s infrastructure, said: ..

Now he and other experts say the country can finally start making dents in the problem. A bipartisan infrastructure bill approved by Congress on Friday calls for $ 15 billion to allocate lead pipe repairs. An additional $ 9 billion to help lead reduction in underprivileged communities and $ 970 million for local water and sewage programs, including lead restoration, will be President Joe Biden’s social and climatic. It is still at the table as part of the pending settlement spending bill to fund the agenda. ..

Some say the infrastructure bill isn’t enough, but industry experts and environmental advocates estimate that the actual cost of a complete lead pipe replacement will be $ 60 billion, but the infrastructure package Some believe it will make a big difference.

“Is this better than nothing? Absolutely 100%,” said Scott Berry, director of policy and government affairs at the US Water Alliance, a non-profit organization focused on sustainable water policy. I am. “This will change for some communities.”

Lead-poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, drew public attention to the issue of lead pipes in 2015. However, plumbing tracking has just begun in some places, such as around Houston’s Fifth District, which is plagued by other environmental hazards due to aging homes. pollution.

Lead service lines were banned nationwide in 1986, but most of this is taking longer than community and environmental supporters would like to fix underground problems.

Earlier this month, before the infrastructure bill was passed, the EPA ordered Benton Harbor, Michigan, to take “immediate action” to improve its drinking water system after doing nothing at high lead levels for several years. I did. Illinois recently established a 50-year timeline to replace all major service routes, including Chicago, the largest number of US cities with an estimated 400,000 routes.

After the Flint water crisis, staff from the Greater Cincinnati Water Department planned to remove lead pipes. The city provided financial assistance to real estate owners for their share of the project. When fewer owners registered than expected, city leaders agreed to bear the full cost, said water quality director Jeff Swertfeger. Authorities wanted the project to be completed within 15 years before the bill was passed.

“It will allow us to make it faster,” Swertfeger said if his city gets some money.

The EPA said in 2012 that there were no safe levels of lead exposure. However, Adrian Katner, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at Louisiana State University, said the rules governing drinking water tolerance levels have changed little since 1991.

Katner said many Americans, including medical professionals, believed that the problem of lead poisoning was largely resolved when blood lead levels fell following a ban on lead in paints and gases. She said the idea continues to this day.

“But the lead story isn’t over,” Katner said. “Because of the amount of lead we put into the environment, we have created a city that is now a fairly dangerous waste site.”

Lead-based paints and lead-contaminated dust continue to be the leading cause of lead exposure, but in reality, lead in water poisons children and adults at a nasty rate. The EPA estimates that drinking water can account for more than 20% of lead exposure to the general public. Infants who take the reconstituted formula can receive up to 60% of lead exposure from water.

“Lead pipes are unpredictable,” said Tom Nertner, head of chemical policy for the Environmental Defense Fund, a science-based environmental advocacy group. “One day they can go low and later they can really go high. It could be the flow, the chemistry of the water, the temperature, or something else. It makes them safe. That’s why it’s especially difficult to manage, and why it’s so important to replace them. “

Lead accumulates in the body over time. It is known to cause organ damage in children and reduce impulse regulation, IQ, and cognitive ability. It can cause childbirth problems. People who are deficient in calcium during pregnancy can exude from the bones, cross the placental barrier, and expose the foetation to lead. In adults, it can cause liver damage and cardiovascular disease.

Lead-contaminated water can affect everyone, but low-income and minority communities have been hit hardest, Katner said. Many of these communities are located in older, more industrialized and more polluted areas of certain cities, and residents are unlikely to have the financial resources or political influence to remove lead pipes. Become.

Gracey Lewis, Senior Health Scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said:

Behind the glittering office towers and expensive condos of downtown Houston, Houston’s Fifth District faces many environmental and health challenges. Within that boundary are three super fund sites, a chemical plant, a metal recycler and a cement plant. Two cancer clusters have been identified there.

Rev. James Coldwell has formed a non-profit community organization to help local residents address health, environmental, economic and social issues. In 2019, the Houston Department of Health provided Caldwell’s group with a map identifying potential homes and businesses with lead-based paint contamination. These homes may have been built before 1978, a year when lead paint was banned nationwide, and aging infrastructure was already a problem, so lead service lines also watered the area. It may have been supplied.

“I don’t know if people in our community are bathing in lead water, drinking lead water, or watering plants and food, and they don’t know,” Caldwell said. rice field. “That’s a problem.”

The Community Organization Coalition has created a working group of residents and experts to sample multiple particles of lead-containing particles of water, soil, and dust from homes throughout District 5. Leanne Fawkes, a PhD candidate in the Department of Public Health at Texas A & M University working on this project, said that about 30% of water samples collected from 200 households so far have shown elevated lead levels. I did.

“I want more Houston citizens to know that this is happening in their backyard,” she said.

The city’s public works sector is conducting another public survey to help determine the location of the entire city for water quality inspections, said city spokesman Erin Jones.

Environmental Defense Fund Nertner said it is imperative to raise national awareness that these pipes and plumbing fixtures pose a health hazard. Removing them does not eliminate the risk of lead-contaminated drinking water, but he said that what remains potentially can be managed more easily with appropriate mitigation measures.

Now that the infrastructure bill has been approved, he said, priority should be given to making funding accessible to residents with the fewest resources to participate in solving the problem.

“If you’re drinking water with a lead straw, it may be safe now, but the next moment it’s not safe,” says Nertner. “People need to be confident that their water is safe.”

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“Drinking through a lead straw” — $ 15 billion approved for repairing dangerous water pipes

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