The costs of lead in our drinking water - Metropolitan Planning Council

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The costs of lead in our drinking water

What price will we pay if we fail to eliminate lead service lines in Illinois? MPC explores two major categories of costs—healthcare and crisis management—to explain how expensive it is to continue to ignore this problem.  

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This blog is the first in a series about why and how Illinois should adopt a statewide solution that requires and enables water utilities to completely replace the hundreds of thousands of lead service lines that exist statewide, threatening the safety of our drinking water.

Lead in drinking water is an outsized problem in Illinois with costly health consequences that affect all of us. The main source of lead in drinking water is a lead service line—the part of the system that brings drinking water from a utility’s water main into a home, school, business or other building. Lead was once the preferred material for service lines because of its anti-corrosive qualities. Though the effects of lead exposure have been understood for decades, more than 686,000 lead service lines still remain in Illinois, posing a serious threat to public health when that lead leeches into our drinking water.

What price will we pay if we fail to act to eliminate lead service lines in Illinois? The costs are so immense and disperse that it’s impossible to arrive at a single figure. However, by exploring two major categories of costs—healthcare and crisis management—we can begin to understand how expensive it is to continue to ignore this problem.  

Healthcare costs of inaction

Illinois is paying for the privilege of drinking through lead pipes. Does that claim sound bonkers? Stop and think about the vast healthcare costs we pay because we’re consuming lead.

As MPC detailed in a previous blog post, ingestion of any amount of lead can lead to long-lasting health issues. Children can suffer from impaired intellectual development, increased attention-related behavior problems, and reduced growth and hearing. The effects of childhood lead exposure linger for a lifetime, with costs that accrue to all of us. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that up to 75 percent of lead in drinking water is due to lead service lines, making this a serious problem we need to tackle.

The Environmental Defense Fund recently reported that $22,000 is saved for every lead service line that is removed, a dollar figure that only accounts for adult cardiovascular deaths attributed to lead exposure. Given Illinois’ 686,000 known lead service lines—the real number is likely higher because the composition of some 45 percent of service lines statewide is unknown—our state could save a staggering $15.1 billion due to reduced cardiovascular deaths alone.

Here is another cost to consider: The Illinois Department of Public Health released 2017 data stating that more than 7,726 children had a reported blood lead level above 10 μg/dL—a troubling number because no exposure over 0 is considered safe according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Even worse, many more Illinois children have likely been exposed to lead but have not been tested. According to researcher Peter Muennig, each one of these children will lose around 73 healthy days and $50,000[1] in productivity over their lifetime. For Illinois, this one cohort of children results in 1,545 healthy years and $386.3 million in total productivity costs lost. And that’s just over one cohort’s lifetime. Once you start to stack up these costs year after year, the damage starts to really add up.

Alarming as they are, these numbers are just a sliver of the healthcare costs we pay due to lead exposure. Known additional health effects include high blood pressure, reproductive issues, and kidney failure— among others. Using EDF’s cardiovascular disease study as an indicator, the aggregate costs would be astronomical.

Healthcare costs represent the long-range, slow burn of inaction on lead in drinking water. Because health consequences of exposure are lifelong, the more time passes before we eliminate this problem, the more individuals become exposed at exponential cost to society.

In addition, some communities have experienced the more immediate costs of inaction when lead has broadly permeated their drinking water supply, triggering crisis management.  

Crisis management costs of inaction

In recent years, governments have spent millions of dollars responding to lead-contaminated water in cities such as Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey. We look to these cities to better understand what’s at stake for the dozens of communities in Illinois with lead service lines.

Following news of lead contamination, residents turn to bottled water and faucet filters as temporary solutions. However, water bottles come with their own set of costs and challenges.

In Flint, after city officials switched the city’s water source in 2014 causing the city’s lead crisis, state-funded water delivery service did not begin immediately. It took more than two years and a court order to implement a bottled water distribution program “as part of a $450 million aid package – $350 million from the state and $100 from the federal government.”[2] While the state declared Flint’s drinking water safe and ended its free bottled water distribution in 2018, it continued to cover the city’s cost of delivering bottled water, on average $650,000 per month, or $22,000 a day in 2019.[3]

And that’s just the cost to the State of Michigan. Since 2014, households in Flint have accumulated thousands of dollars in related expenses. Before bottled water became widely available for free, households were paying for their own bottled water at an estimated cost of $150-$200 per household per month[4]

For people living paycheck to paycheck, these unanticipated costs are especially onerous, which only undermines public trust in government.[5] Loss of the public’s trust during times of crisis may be impossible to quantify. However, lawsuits are easier to measure: Holding accountable government officials who could have acted sooner has cost Michigan taxpayers $30 million in legal fees.[6]  

In August 2019, after learning that some of the nearly 40,000 filters distributed to residents with lead service lines did not work properly, Newark residents also pushed for free bottled water service.[7] Despite community concerns, a U.S. district judge denied a request to expand water delivery service in the eastern part of the city to ensure pregnant women and those with children younger than six years old had access to safe drinking water.[8] This is an important reminder that government-funded crisis mitigation strategies, such as bottled water distribution programs, are neither guaranteed nor built into emergency response systems.

What insights for Illinois can we gain from the paths of impact and recovery in Flint and Newark? Teasing out the nuances of crisis management requires us to anticipate a full range of situations. If hit by a lead water crisis, Illinois communities would likely respond in a similar manner as Flint and Newark, albeit on a bigger scale (and at greater costs) in municipalities with larger populations.

For example, addressing a widespread drinking water crisis in a city the size of Chicago would require immense labor and logistics to identify needs and meet demands for more than 2.7 million people. It would mean increasing capacity rapidly, to ensure people could access critical services and receive timely information in language that is accessible.

How prepared is Illinois?

Lead-contaminated water is not an unanticipated hazard. We know that 686,000 lead service lines exist in Illinois—and likely even more. When water monitoring and sampling requirements are not met, the risk of a drinking water disaster increases.

Recently, a drinking water crisis in University Park, Illinois, offered a cautionary tale about preparedness. It’s important to note that the village’s crisis was not related to lead service lines; instead, their crisis was caused by lead solder (a method of fusing pipes, and another legacy source of lead in drinking water). However, it was a good reminder that University Park, like Flint and Newark, is not an isolated incident. As Dorothy Jones, a resident of University Park, succinctly put it,

“Most homes in the Chicago area were built with lead pipes prior to 1990, so this kind of water crisis could happen anywhere. Aging infrastructure and the lack of investment in many communities will only contribute to this problem. Replacing those pipes in and outside of homes is a costly endeavor and one most homeowners are not prepared to do or pay for themselves.”[9]

A solution that’s well worth the price

Communities that have begun to replace lead service lines, such as Galesburg, have seen significant drops in the amount of lead in the public’s drinking water. Many more communities would like to follow suit, but the cost of lead service line replacement—an estimated $8,000 per line—is a significant barrier.   

Though replacing all lead service lines in Illinois will come with a price tag, we need to start recognizing that we’re already paying for the status quo. That’s why MPC is working with partners across Illinois to identify a feasible and equitable plan, timeline and funding for Illinois water utilities to identify and replace all lead service lines. Potential solutions include Illinois legislation specifically requiring and funding lead service line replacement across the state, and/or funding designated for lead service line replacement in state and federal COVID-19 economic recovery bills. The solution must have a feasible timeline based on national best practices, and it must take an equitable approach, with provisions for low-income families and the assurance that all communities will have access to these funds.

Replacing lead service lines would make Illinois and its communities more resilient and less vulnerable to a drinking water crisis, with modern infrastructure to provide clean, safe water to all homes, schools, and businesses. This initiative would also generate some 144,000 jobs for Illinoisans, according to an economic impact analysis showing that for every $1 million invested in capital improvements to water infrastructure, 15 to 18 jobs are created.

With numbers like these—and the costs we’re already paying, outlined above—we can’t afford not to invest in replacing lead service lines in Illinois. Learn more at metroplanning.org/leadinourwater.

[1] https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/full/10.1377/hlthaff.2016.0661

[2] https://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2018/04/07/Michigan-ends-Flints-free-bottled-water-program/7031523112525/

[3] https://www.mlive.com/news/flint/2018/03/states_average_monthly_bottled.html

[4] Official estimates are approximately $152 per month. However, at a rate of $2.60 per bottled water case, and a weekly average consumption of 19.3 cases for households with a pregnant parent and/or children under the age of six, the estimated household cost is even higher at $200/month.Estimates derived from https://www.mlive.com/news/flint/2018/03/survey_says_flint_residents_us.html

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/04/flint-residents-punished-poisoned-water

[6] https://www.mlive.com/news/g66l-2019/01/7ae6ba4bf36357/how-the-state-spent-30million.html

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/14/nyregion/newark-water-lead.html

[8] https://www.nrdc.org/experts/erik-d-olson/newarks-bottled-water-plan-denies-thousands-safe-water

[9] https://www.chicagobusiness.com/forum-ideas-water/your-home-lead-crisis-upends-life-fear-anxiety-and-uncertainty

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