Lead Pipes Continue to Plague Millions, Especially in Black Communities

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Despite a century of knowledge on the dangers of lead poisoning, dozens of studies showing the impacts of lead on children’s development, and high-profile humanitarian disasters like the 2014 Flint Water Crisis, millions of Americans are still being exposed to lead in their drinking water. What’s worse: new studies show that these pipes are depositing more lead into the water than the EPA’s monitoring suggests.

Why This Matters: According to a study from Healthy Babies Bright Futures, approximately 80% of U.S. households have some level of lead in their drinking water, and 40% have levels above the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended limit. Lead is one of the most enduring public health hazards as there is no “safe” threshold for exposure, and as long as it has existed, it has disproportionately impacted Black communities. 

  • A 2019 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that Black children living in poverty were twice as likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood than poor white and Hispanic children.
  • Lead exposure in early development has been linked to lowered IQ and academic performance, attention deficit disorder, and other behavioral issues.

Knowing all of this, how is lead piping still a thing?

The Short Answer: Extensive lead piping that was laid before the federal ban can be expensive to replace. For example, in Chicago, replacing 400,000 lead service lines will cost the city $8.5 billion, money that Chicago doesn’t have.

The Long Answer: In the early 1900s, the lead industry launched a full-scale attack, convincing plumbers’ unions, architects, and federal officials that lead was essential. 

Richard Rabin a leading anti-lead advocate, explains that the legacy of this campaign can be found, very literally, running through the veins of every major American city. The Lead Industries Association (LIA) succeeded at building lead standards directly into legislation. 

“It must be remembered the adoption of laws … is slow work, but once adopted, make a relatively permanent requirement of lead … In many cities, we have successfully opposed ordinance or regulation revisions which would have reduced or eliminated the use of lead.” – Secretary of LIA, 1938

David Rosner, co-author of the 2014 book Lead Wars, explained that LIA scapegoated Black parents for “allowing” their children to eat lead paint and argued that lead poisoning in Black and Puerto Rican communities was simply a matter of “educating the parents.”

What’s the EPA doing about it?

Since the 1986 ban, the EPA has taken charge of monitoring lead levels in water, but recent studies have shown that its policy has been at best, subpar and at worst, deadly. 

  • A recent analysis from APM Reports found that the EPA’s current “actionable level” of lead would need to be 70% lower to prevent lead poisoning in young children.
  • When the EPA’s water experts proposed an update to the Lead and Copper Rule that would force utility companies to perform more rigorous tests, the EPA sided with the companies.

The Trump administration updated the Lead and Copper Rule for the first time in 30 years. The update tightened requirements on how soon utilities must notify customers of lead in their water but also relaxed a requirement for how quickly cities must replace lead pipes. Previously, cities were required to replace 7% of their lead pipes annually. Now, they must replace only 3%. 

Advocates are hopeful that the Biden administration, which has promised to emphasize equity and environmental justice in its policy, will tighten restrictions and dedicate more federal funding toward helping cities replace pipes. Many bills including such funding have died in Mitch McConnell’s senate, but now, with a Democratic majority, hopes are high that the U.S. can finally leave lead behind.

Deniz “Dersim” Yeter co-author of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study, says that any solution to the lead epidemic must take systemic racism into account.If you’re ignoring Black race as a leading risk factor — you’re leaving so many black kids at far greater risk out of the local, state, and federal response,” he said. 


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