Ensuring Lead-Free Taps for All – State of the Planet

Ensuring Lead-Free Taps for All – State of the Planet

Photo credit: Naran, via Wikimedia

In 1861, Charles F. Chandler, an American chemist and the first dean of Columbia University’s School of Mines, argued that the threat of lead poisoning outweighed the usefulness of lead as a material to construct water pipes. “The problem…is to provide a pipe which shall possess all the good qualities of lead, and be free from the one great objection, namely, the danger of lead poisoning from its use,” said Chandler in a lecture to a local civic organization.

More than 160 years later, we are still plagued by toxic chemicals in our water. To that end, President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law targets more than $50 billion in investment through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a 100% replacement of the nation’s lead service lines within 10 years. Additionally, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), forever chemicals that impact reproductive and developmental health in humans, are “new, emerging toxins” that are targeted by the administration. As of now, $5 billion is allocated to address emerging contaminants such as PFAS. Comprehensively, the law extends to cover the emerging threat of microplastics to safeguard water and public health as well.

Are these the best investments? Will they be enough?

Violations of drinking water standards are increasing, especially in poorer, rural areas, and in less resourced city schools, with Flint, Mich., and Jackson, Miss., serving as visible examples. Urgent action is required to protect children and underprivileged neighborhoods as 56% of the US population is exposed to lead levels exceeding the recommended limit. Lead exposure causes intellectual and behavioral disorders, contributing to socioeconomic distress. In Jackson, 83% of the population who face ongoing challenges from lead-contaminated drinking water is African-American. The Flint water crisis had catastrophic effects on children’s health, where nearly 30,000 schoolchildren were exposed to lead-contaminated water. General intelligence loss from lead poisoning in children is estimated to cost the US $43.4 billion annually, while lead mitigation is estimated to create $50,000 in benefits per child/year.

Aging water infrastructure is also a concern. Every day, 850 water mains break in North America at a total annual repair cost of over $3 billion. Each break contaminates the water supply and leads to a suspension of service. Beyond the main pipes, lead plumbing and fixtures are expensive to replace for homeowners. Pipe replacement is needed, but it also has significant labor and material costs, disrupts traffic, residential communities and elevates noise levels.

Lead pipelines could be replaced with chlorinated PVC pipes (CPVC), a long-term solution that would also solve aging water mains breaking. Alternately, one could line lead pipes with epoxy resin. This would prevent lead getting into the water supply and can be completed within 12 hours, but has harsh cleaning requirements and does not last as long as a new pipe.

A third solution is a point-of-use reverse osmosis (RO) system installed in each home. RO has proven to be efficient for lead removal, with residential-grade RO filters removing up to 99% of lead. RO also stands out as the optimal choice for the removal of PFAS and microplastics. Notably, key EPA findings show RO systems are effective at removing more than 90 percent of PFAS .

Epoxy lining is the most expensive option, with lead pipe replacement being a close second. RO stands out as the least expensive. We find that RO is a promising solution, with high removal of lead and other toxic chemicals, with integrated UV disinfection targeting microbes. Our financial analysis for schools, apartments and single-family households shows that its long-term costs are one-third of those for pipe replacement, while providing more benefits. A common concern is that users will not replace filters, and this could lead to unsafe water. Maintaining filters can be simplified with a subscription service included in the water bill.

Government funding currently budgeted for the lead problem should consider paying for RO installation since it would cover three times as many people as currently targeted. Increased demand for RO would create a new market for filter production and recycling, filter performance certification and technology to detect and limit microbial growth. As communities struggle to address unsafe water, of which lead is a major but not the only concern, a comprehensive strategy considering cost, efficiency and public support is essential for making informed budgeting decisions for safe drinking water. Currently government aid is only available for pipe replacement. At present, CPVC pipes emerge as the most cost-effective and durable option to replace lead pipes. However, pipe degradation is inevitable regardless of the material, slowly polluting the water that passes through. That is why we must also focus on implementing RO systems that can tackle any contaminant to fully ensure the safety of our drinking water. 

We applaud bipartisan efforts on drinking water quality but stress the need for a proactive focus on the safety of water where it is used, rather than for regulated utility improvements, as is the current focus of legislators. We urge the EPA, state and local agencies overseeing water safety to integrate RO treatment and water quality verification at the point of use into policies for schools and homes. Spending $50 billion on pipe replacement alone and not integrating RO projects for communities is a mistake. The country’s aging, failing service lines beg for replacement, but we also need protection at the tap. It is time for action to ensure clean and safe drinking water for all.

The authors of this article are affiliated with the Columbia Water Center, which is leading intellectual inquiry into the assessment, understanding and resolution of the most pressing global water issues, combining multidisciplinary academic research with solutions-based fieldwork in collaboration with other Columbia Climate School centers and programs as well as strategic partners.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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