Flint, MI Demonstrates America’s Lead Pipe Problem


The news of lead poisoning coming out of Flint, Michigan is scary.  We can’t dismiss this as a problem only for budget ravaged rust belt cities.  It is even more frightening: Flint’s cost cutting water re-supply simply triggered an imminent infrastructure threat  shared by pretty much ALL American cities.  How are we to deal with the lead pipe legacy of the last century?  When will we muster the political will to effectively address our aging water infrastructure?

Lead: Don’t Drink It

In case you have been living under a rock for … ever, you should know that lead is bad for you and it is even worse for children.  From the CDC website on Blood Lead Levels:

“No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. And effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.”

However … lead is all around us.  Interestingly, despite recent headline news, the CDC page on preventing lead exposure in children only addresses methods of separating kids from lead paint.  They don’t even really get into the dangers of lead plumbing on that page.  Lead pipe is integral to our water distribution network – it exists in the supply line section and often the internal pipeworks (see the diagram above) of most older buildings and it isn’t going anywhere until we dig it all up and replace it.

The Defect in Our Design – Why Were We Piping with Lead Anyway?

Lead pipe has been used to move water around since Roman times for the simple reason that it is strong and yet malleable – easy to work with – and longer lasting than iron pipes.  While it was probably not the reason for the Roman Fall, we know much better than to use lead pipe to move our water in the modern era, right?

Maybe not.

There were already concerns about lead toxicity in the 19th century, before lead became the go-to material used for service water piping (the lines going from the city water main to individual houses) and for internal piping.  People used it anyway.  As major US cities started setting up municipal plumbing, most of them were piping with lead by 1900.

Lead Industry Pressure

1927 lead paint adThe dangers of lead poisoning were well documented by the early 1900s.  Lead paint, for example, was banned many other developed countries by the 1920’s.  Not so in America.  In fact, the Paint Industry aggressively campaigned to promote lead based paints for use around children.  Check out this horrifying article in the American Journal of Public Health for more detail.  Image from same.

The Lead Industries Association aggressively counter argued every move to ban lead pipes.  As local governments started to restrict it, the LIA was always there: promoting its use, publishing favorable articles and studies, making donations, and selling it as a “must” to plumbing trade unions.  Again, the American Journal of Public Heath.

Due, in part, to pressure like that, the CDC didn’t establish “acceptable blood lead levels” for children until the 1960’s, and as Flint demonstrates, our government organizations still bow WAY TO EASILY to industry or other financial pressures not to enforce or acknowledge public safety issues.

Where is the lead in Flint coming from?

Not all the articles about the problems in Flint adequately explain the problem.  The lead in the water is actually from damaged water pipes – not the river water that Flint used from 2014 to 2015.  This makes the problem so much worse.

To be clear, the Flint river water was, and is, anything but clean.  In fact, it is 19 times more corrosive than the Lake Huron water.  The city knew this before they made the switch, and could have added an anti-corrosive agent to the water … but they didn’t.  Instead, the river water ate away at the inside of old pipes and exposed lead on the inside during those two years.

Flint switched back to Lake Huron water last September but that hasn’t reduced the lead level – it will probably continue leaching into residential water supplies for years now that it has been exposed.  Click here for two articles, New York Times and CNN that clearly summarize the situation.

Where is lead in YOUR plumbing lines?

City water mains (the big pipes that runs under the street) are generally not lead.  Internal house piping is more likely to have been updated, even in an older house, to copper, or various types of plastic (PVC, CPVC and PEX).  The likely spot for lead pipe to lurk is the supply (or service) line which runs under the front yard from water main to internal pipeworks.   It is hard to dig up without excavating the basement and belongs to individual home owners – not the city – so its hard to replace on a comprehensive level.

Lead Pipe in Chicago

The American Water Works Association estimates that updating the American water supply system (and getting the lead out) will cost more than $1 trillion in the next 25 years.  Bringing the problem home, Chicago continued installing lead service lines until the mid 1980’s so we have A LOT OF LEAD to deal with.  This Tribune article quotes lead expert Bruce Lanphear, “[the problem is] so huge that utilities and the states don’t want to talk about it unless there are federal funds to fix it.”

Well, we are going to have to do something soon.  Flint is proof that we can’t ignore this problem much longer without dire consequences.