Lead in Drinking Water: Time for Zero Tolerance?

Lead in drinking water reared its head again in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Why are we worried about PFAS while lead service lines threaten to continue poisoning children?

As I write this column, I am recalling another incidence of lead in drinking water, this time in Benton Harbor, Michigan which, like Flint, is a poor community with a largely Black population.

Last September Michigan’s governor Gretchen Whitmer pledged to invest $200 million to replace all the lead water service lines in the state within 18 months — and bravo to her for that. It’s an ambitious goal, but the problem deserves the priority being given to it.

The question I have is this: Why do we read so much in the media about controlling PFAS when lead in drinking water from older homes’ service lines remains a serious problem? I don’t mean to laugh off PFAS, sometimes called “forever chemicals,” which are tied to a variety of potential health effects, including increased risk of various cancers.

The hazards of lead

But so far the effects of PFAS are of the “may lead to” variety — there is not enough hard evidence yet to say definitively how these substances affect human health in the amounts found in people’s bloodstreams to date. More study is warranted.

Meanwhile, we know that lead can be present in harmful concentrations in the drinking water of families whose homes are connected to water utility piping by lines that contain lead. And we know that lead is extremely toxic, especially to young children — that is why it was removed long ago from gasoline, paints and other products.

There is no “safe” level of lead; the U.S. EPA has set the maximum contaminant level goal at zero for lead in drinking water. That’s because lead is toxic even at very low levels, is persistent, and can accumulate in our bodies over time.

The EPA reports that young children and infants are especially vulnerable because lead affects them at lower levels than in adults. In children, lead has been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing and impaired formation and function of blood cells.

Meanwhile, the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative reports that children poisoned by lead are seven times more likely than normal children to drop out of school, and six times more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system. These effects are not of the “may lead to” variety. They are well known and well documented.

Which begs the question…

Because all this is true, why isn’t our country, collectively, putting the pedal to the metal to get rid of lead-containing water services? Why are instances like Flint and Benton Harbor still cropping up?

In Benton Harbor, a city of 9,600 in Southwest Michigan, state officials told residents last October to use bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing teeth because of elevated lead levels in tap water. Thousands of cases of bottled water were being diverted to the city.

Lead in drinking water has been an issue in the city for several years; the water is drawn from Lake Michigan. The EPA lead contamination action level for lead is 15 parts per billion; if more than 10% of water samples in a community exceed that level, water systems must optimize corrosion control, educate the public about the effects of lead and replace lead service lines.

Benton Harbor came under that provision in 2018. In 2020 water in one home tested at 440 parts per billion. In 2020, water from 11 homes showed lead levels above 15 parts per billion; one home’s water registered 889 parts per billion.

Time for more action

It’s not as if nothing has been done toward abatement of lead in drinking water. Many states and communities are taking action, and the newly adopted federal infrastructure law contains significant funding to support those efforts.

Of recent note, last December the Biden administration announced a plan to eliminate lead pipes (and lead paint in old homes) within the next decade.

It would seem that whether or not a community’s lead problem rises to the point where the EPA requires action, lead in drinking water is a scourge. At the same time we worry about PFAS in biosolids applied to cropland, where the possibility of human exposure is remote. And PFAS is all over the news — maybe because the issue is relatively new, and maybe because one of the potential effects of PFAS is greater risk of cancer, always a red flag.

Meanwhile, the lead problem persists. Knowing what we do about lead, and contemplating the horror of children being harmed by the water they drink in their own homes, shouldn’t we make sure the elimination of lead services gets to or remains at the front of the line for action?

Solving the problem is not as easy as it seems; the logistics and cost of replacing lead lines and taking other measures to limit lead exposure are challenging for many communities, especially smaller ones. On the other hand, perhaps in the richest country in the world we should have a zero-tolerance policy toward lead in the water our children drink.

Is replacing lead lines to multiple homes expensive? Of course. But does it seem as if it’s got to be done? Again, of course. So what in the world are we waiting for?   


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