Water Supply Management - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Water Supply Management

Ensuring safe, sustainable and equitable drinking water systems

Lead in Drinking Water

There is no safe level of lead exposure. Exposure can cause behavior problems and learning disabilities in young children and also affects the health of adults.[1] Children are the most susceptible to the effects of lead poisoning, which can lead to decreased IQ, hyperactivity, hearing problems, stunted growth, and learning disabilities. In adults, lead can increase the risk of heart attack, high blood pressure, kidney failure, and reproductive problems for both men and women.

While paint, dust and soil are the most common sources of lead exposure, lead can also be found in some water pipes inside buildings or pipes that connect buildings to a water main (known as a service line). Lead found in tap water usually comes from the decay of old lead-based pipes or fixtures, or from leaded solder (an alloy used to fuse metal pieces together) that connects drinking water pipes.

Lead pipes have been used since the invention of water service in ancient Rome. It is estimated that by 1900, more than 70 percent of U.S. cities with 30,000 or more residents were using lead-based products to deliver water.[2] Due to its toxicity, many U.S. cities began moving away from using lead pipes by the 1920’s. Federal Congress finally banned the use of this toxic metal to convey drinking water in 1986. However, removal or remediation was not required.

The water crisis in Flint, MI—in which a change in the water supply and lack of proper treatment and precautions caused corrosion of pipes resulting in soaring lead levels in drinking water—have brought the concern about lead in drinking water infrastructure to the forefront. Lead in drinking water is also an equity issue—not all individuals or communities have the resources or ability to replace lead service lines, and often times these same communities face the greatest risk of lead exposure—so assessments and funding programs must be designed to deliver more resources to low-income households and low-capacity communities. Likewise, comprehensive solutions that address rental housing and non-residential buildings will be critical. While lead in our drinking water infrastructure is a complicated issue, not attending to this public health issue is not an option—we need action today. It’s time to get the lead out.

Resources:

Putting Lead into Context:

Before finding solutions, we need to first understand the problem of lead in drinking water. The following articles build a foundation for understanding this complex problem:

Government Action on Lead:

Lead in drinking water affects more than just individuals: it affects communities. As such, many local and state governments are taking action. From state-mandated testing to service line replacement financing, the following articles discuss and evaluate recent government action pertaining to lead in drinking water:

MPC's Action on Lead:

In addition to education, MPC is employing a multi-pronged approach to tackle the lead in drinking water issue at multiple levels. Our proactive approach leverages policy change, educational materials and resources, research initiatives, pilot projects, and communications to build political will and create win-win scenarios to expedite lead service line replacement. MPC is committed to bringing productive dialog and collaborative efforts to drive useful, tangible action today.

[1] Centers for Disease Control. About Lead in Drinking Water. 2015. Source: https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/leadinwater/.

[2] Fluence Corporation Limited. A Very Brief History of Lead in Water Supplies. 2016. Source: https://www.fluencecorp.com/brief-history-lead-water-supplies/.

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