This fall, Benton Harbor, Michigan, became the latest community to experience the national media’s glare for persistent lead contamination of its drinking water. Yet lead threats to our kids’ health are much more widespread than the few communities the public hears about. More than half of one million kids recently tested had lead in their blood.
Fortunately, after years of inaction, the bipartisan infrastructure bill just approved by Congress will put unprecedented resources toward stopping lead from getting into our drinking water.
This commitment couldn’t come soon enough as nearly 2,000 communities had drinking water samples with high levels of lead in the water. What’s particularly troubling is that lead contamination is pervasive at our schools. In Arizona, for example, 48% of the 13,380 school taps tested found lead in the water. Our analysis has shown alarming rates of contamination in most every state with available data, including Montana, Massachusetts, Texas, and Washington.
Harmful to our kids’ health
Lead is very harmful to children, affecting the way they grow, learn and behave. On its website, the Environmental Protection Agency says that, for children, even “low levels of [lead] exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.” In fact, every major public health organization agrees that there is no safe level of lead, which is why the EPA acknowledges there should be zero lead in drinking water.
In total, public health experts estimate that 24 million American children are at risk of losing IQ points due to low-level lead exposure.
How did we get here?
For decades, water utilities installed service lines — the pipes that bring water from the main in the street into our homes — that were made entirely of lead. These toxic pipes are the single largest source of drinking water contamination, accounting for 50% to 75% of lead contamination at the tap in homes, child care centers and other buildings that have them. There are still 9.3 million lead service lines left in the United States, according to the EPA.
While relatively few schools have lead service lines, most of them do have faucets, fountains and plumbing made with enough lead to contaminate water. National standards allowed significant lead content in fixtures until 2014. Even some recently-made faucets can cause contamination.
Get the lead out
There is no shortcut to solving this problem. If we want safe drinking water for our kids, we must literally “get the lead out” of our water delivery systems. For starters, that means replacing all lead service lines.
And to safeguard our kids’ water at school, we can start by replacing fountains with water-bottle stations with filters that arehighly effective at removing lead. And until the day when we can literally “get the lead out” of the plumbing at schools and child care centers, we’ll also need these filters installed on other taps used for cooking or drinking.
Of course, all of this costs money. And so notwithstanding the longstanding recommendations of activists and public health experts, the notion of replacing all lead service lines was, until recently, little more than a pipe dream.
Making the case
To convince policymakers to invest in protecting our drinking water, we launched our Get the Lead Out campaign. We published a map showing widespread lead contamination of schools water, and a seminal report showing that most states were failing to prevent it. We educated parents with an activist toolkit and built enough public support to win policies at the state and local level – from Montana to San Diego and beyond.
At the federal level, we and our allies met with the EPA, and made recommendations to the incoming Biden administration on the issue. And this spring, we worked with 360 local officials to urge Congress to invest in clean infrastructure, including protecting our drinking water from lead. And our state affiliates held more than 70 virtual lobby meetings with Congressional offices to reinforce that request.
Earlier this year, Reps. Chris Smith of New Jersey and Henry Cuellar of Texas introduced their Get the Lead Out Act, which set a 10-year deadline for replacing lead pipes and provided full funding to get the job done. We were honored to work with these legislators on such a visionary yet common sense solution. And it helped set the stage for real progress. Now, the just-passed bipartisan infrastructure package includes $15 billion to replace lead service lines and $200 million for schools to prevent lead contamination of their water.
To be sure, more resources will be needed. The Biden administration has put the price tag for replacing all lead service lines at $45 billion, and some are now saying the cost could run higher. Our rough cost calculations to get the lead out at schools exceeds $3 billion.
But the bipartisan package is a foundation for further progress — one that some in Congress are already acting on. The Build Back Better package now includes an additional $9.97 billion in grants to remove lead service lines and replace fountains with filtered hydration stations at schools.
So in short, I’m thrilled that Congress passed the bipartisan infrastructure package today. Now let’s start putting this money to work to make our drinking water safer, even as we advocate for more resources to get the job done.
Photo: lead pipes. Credit: Milwaukee Water Works
Clean Water Director and Senior Attorney, Environment America
John directs Environment America's efforts to protect our rivers, lakes, streams and drinking water. John’s areas of expertise include lead and other toxic threats to drinking water, factory farms and agribusiness pollution, algal blooms, fracking and the federal Clean Water Act. He previously worked as a staff attorney for Alternatives for Community & Environment and Tobacco Control Resource Center. John lives in Brookline, Mass., with his family, where he enjoys cooking, running, playing tennis, chess and building sandcastles on the beach.