Everyone needs their lead pipes replaced, not just those who can afford it

Tom Neltner

Editor’s note: April 2020 update — EDF is advocating that Congress provide $45 billion in funding to drinking water utilities to fully replace lead service lines across the country.

Across the country, over 9 million homes still get their drinking water through a lead pipe. Given our growing understanding of the risks of even low levels of lead exposure to both children and adults — and the benefits of reducing exposure — replacing these lead service lines is a no-brainer.

Two new analyses underscore the need to make lead pipe replacement a national priority, and for programs to prevent disproportionate impacts on low-income and communities of color.

Lead pipe replacement and environmental justice

The default approach to lead service line replacement, performed during infrastructure repair work, involves replacing the line that's on public property, but leaving the portion on private property untouched unless the resident pays.

As a result of these ‘partial replacements,' residents are placed at risk for greater lead exposure. It's also a missed opportunity to achieve the long-term benefits and cost savings of doing it right the first time. While intuitively, this poses a major equity concern, we wanted to test the theory in a scientific way.

With support from EDF, researchers at American University evaluated data on more than 3,400 lead service line replacements conducted in Washington, D.C., from 2009-2018. During this period, the water utility had launched a program to streamline the process: Homeowners could have their lines replaced during infrastructure projects, or voluntarily, outside of such planned work.

Researchers found [PDF] that the program had the unintended consequence of disproportionately impacting low-income and Black households.

Fortunately, Washington, D.C., has a new policy that takes steps to resolve the problem moving forward while addressing the legacy issue. Most of the 11,000 other cities with lead service lines have not taken such steps, however, and are likely still using the default approach.

And proposed changes to the federal regulation for lead in water, the Lead and Copper Rule, could make the environmental justice concerns and health equity disparities even worse.

The connection between lead exposure and heart disease

Lead exposure isn't a danger for children alone. It also puts adults at higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Until now, we haven't known what these findings mean for the societal costs of lead and the benefits from reducing exposure.

In a new analysis, we used publicly available information from the Environmental Protection Agency to quantify the benefits of replacing all lead service lines. We found that each line replaced yields a $22,000 payback in reduced deaths from cardiovascular disease — that's more than $205 billion over 35 years.

This staggering figure underscores the need for a national commitment on lead pipe replacement that won't leave vulnerable communities behind when deciding how to fund these replacements.

The time is now for a renewed national commitment

These analyses come at a critical time, as the EPA finalizes revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule. The agency proposed revisions in 2019 that — while a step forward — fall short in several key ways, including by continuing to treat lead service line replacement as a last resort instead of an integral part of a long-term plan to protect consumers.

EDF submitted extensive comments calling on the agency to strengthen the rule, including providing key recommendations from our research, and we anticipate that the EPA will incorporate our concerns into the final rule. But it will be years before a new rule is in effect.

In the meantime, cities and states should step up to fully replace their lead service lines, while ensuring funding and other support for low-income and communities of color. Fortunately, hundreds of communities across the country are taking steps in this area, and we've seen innovative approaches in Denver, Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., and the state of Michigan.

The challenge of fully replacing the nation's lead service lines may be monumental, but as we now know, it not only makes common sense — it makes economic sense, too. Our new research shows how important it is to see that this work benefits all residents equitably.

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