By DEBORAH E. LANS
GHENT–For a long time, scientists have known that there is no safe level of lead that humans can ingest. The use of lead in paint has been banned since 1978. In 1986 the installation of lead pipes was banned. The use of lead to solder pipes is also prohibited.
Nevertheless, New York State is estimated to have 500,000 lead pipes still in use – in older buildings, especially those dating from the late 1800s and early 1900. In Columbia County, lead pipes are to be found in the City of Hudson, the villages of Philmont, Valatie, Kinderhook and Chatham, as well as older, rural homes.
Lead is highly toxic. It is associated with cardiovascular disease as well as renal, immunological, hematological and reproductive system issues in adults, and it is classified as a carcinogen. Especially harmful to children, lead is known to affect brain development and cause irreversible cognitive deficits, slowing growth and development, lowering IQ and creating learning, behavior, speech and hearing problems. Indeed, the risks are such that every child born in New York is tested for lead.
Columbia County tests and treats its public water supply for lead (and many other hazards), in compliance with a host of federal and state requirements, explains Amy Schober, the county’s Public Health Sanitarian. However, lead can enter the system after release from a treatment plant as it flows through municipal pipes or the pipes inside a structure. As the Flint, Michigan water crisis taught us, corrosion caused by the chemical composition of water – its acidity, softness and oxygen levels, for example – and its temperature (i.e., heat) can cause lead to leach from pipes and into the water flowing through the pipes. While lead is primarily an issue for water systems, wells can be affected if components are lead-based.
Enter, the Biden Administration’s ground-breaking lead and copper pipe initiatives.
In 2021 the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a requirement that all public water systems conduct an inventory of their service lines to identify all lead and copper lines.
As explained by Mary Beth Bianconi of Delaware Engineering, which is conducting the inventory with the City of Hudson, the use of lead drinking water service lines was ubiquitous in construction through the late 1980s, was also used in building plumbing and in the solder used to fuse pipes. The inventory accordingly includes a trip through history.
Records of construction will be searched, along with old renderings and permits. In addition, Hudson has reached out to its residents to complete a survey concerning their in-home piping systems.
The inventories are due in October of 2024. In New York, as a result of the efforts of Environmental Advocates of New York (EANY) and others, the Lead Pipe Right to Know Act was signed into law by Governor Hochul on December 23, 2023. It will require the inventory results to be posted on the Department of Health website.
This past November, the Biden Administration followed up the inventory requirement by proposing a rule that would require 100% of the lead pipes used by public water systems throughout the country to be replaced within ten years, following a three-year planning period. (The rule also proposed additional testing and safety requirements.) EANY’s Robert Hayes terms the proposal “phenomenal” in its sweeping goal of addressing one of the greatest threats to water quality in the nation.
Implementation of the rule will be a logistical challenge. As Ms. Bianconi explains, replacement requires not only the excavation of the old and installation of new service lines in the public right of way extending from water mains to the curb stop (a valve for each water service) but also into a home or business on private property. Schools and other institutional settings will also be affected. Service interruptions will need to be managed.
While opponents of the new rule may question the feasibility of widespread replacement, already there are examples of municipalities succeeding in the effort. In Newark, NJ, all 23,000 pipes – 100% of the city’s lead pipes – were replaced in three years. Closer to home, Troy has announced and started to implement the first-in-state plan to replace all of its lead pipes, and it will do so at no cost to homeowners.
Cost is, of course, also an issue. To date, while New York has spent some $5 billion on clean water initiatives in the past five years, only $30 million of that has gone to lead pipe issues. The federal Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Act allocates $15 billion to lead pipe issues, of which New York is due to receive $500 million over the next five years. A variety of other federal as well as state funds will be available to municipalities to assist in financing the program.
While in some states, homeowners may be asked to fund some of the costs, experts, such as EANY, urge that, as a matter of environmental justice, replacement should be at no cost to homeowners. Lead pipes, as a vestige of older building practices and structures, are largely found in lower income communities, where homeowners already struggle to meet expenses.
Moreover, a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that the costs of lead pipe replacement will be dwarfed by the associated public health benefits. While an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates the nationwide cost of lead pipe replacement to be $46-56 billion, the Harvard study projects health cost savings of $786 billion over the next 35 years, or, $9 billion/year, the bulk of the costs being in reduced cardiovascular risks. The Harvard study authors project that a 35:1 economic benefit can be accomplished by replacing all of the nation’s lead pipes.
Moreover, EANY’s Mr. Hayes notes that additional financial benefits will flow from the jobs created by the replacement projects, reduced costs for remedying infrastructure corrosion and the enhanced productivity of those generations of children who no longer suffer the cognitive deficits caused by exposure to lead.