lead water pipes
Photo by Luis Tosta on Unsplash

Elena Bautista didn’t pay much attention to the work crews that rolled down her street last year. They planned to remove water pipes made of lead, a toxin that can permanently damage children’s brains.

But they skipped the tenement building where Bautista and her two kids lived.

They dug up pipes only at the homes of those who paid or took out loans for thousands of dollars, as well as under the public streets. Worse, the removal work risked causing a significant spike of toxic water for weeks, maybe months, in the homes of those unable to pay for it.

Bautista lives in Providence, Rhode Island, a city with a history of severe lead problems, yet this practice is happening all over the US. Pipes made of lead, a material not safe in any amount, supply tap water to millions of homes such as Bautista’s. To completely halt contamination, there is no other option but to rip the lead pipes out of the ground and change them for a different material.

But according to a Guardian investigation, some US cities are now essentially telling residents: pay up for the replacement or get more poison in your water.

America’s massive lead problem came into focus in 2015, when thousands of mostly Black residents in the city of Flint, Michigan, were found to have been poisoned by lead in their drinking water. Since then it has become clear that this problem is systemic and widespread, and that many other Americans lack access to a fundamental right: water that is reliably safe and clean.

Joe Biden has promised to rid the nation’s drinking water of lead contamination. Yet a massive 2021 infrastructure spending package approved by Congress contained only enough federal funding to replace a third of the country’s lead lines – leaving cities to figure the rest out for themselves.

Studies have found that Black and brown children are far more likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood and to live in older homes with lead lines, yet it tends to be wealthier white residents who take advantage of local programs that offer property owners loans to replace lead pipes.

The issue of low-income residents being left out of lead line replacements – or even getting more lead because of partial fixes – has become a flashpoint that environmental groups, the EPA and local governments like Providence are now trying to address. But the actions are a drop in the bucket of a massive, nationwide problem.

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“All families deserve lead-free drinking water, regardless of race, class, or any other factor,” said Laura Brion, director of Rhode Island’s Childhood Lead Action Project (Clap). It has drafted a civil rights complaint with four other public advocacy groups – a complaint now under investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency – charging that the Providence water department’s pay-for-replacement strategy “amounts to obvious race and class discrimination and needs to stop”.

“Not only is it not solving the problem, in some cases, it’s making it actively worse,” said Devra Levy, an organizer with Clap.

In Washington Park, a mostly Latino working-class area of Providence with fruit stalls and Dominican bodegas, Bautista, 23, said she was outraged that many renters like herself and low-income homeowners missed out.

Letters from the water department warned that last year’s construction might cause a temporary surge in residents’ lead levels – but Bautista says she didn’t receive it. “I wasn’t notified. I didn’t even know that there was lead piping.” She never took the actions that could have limited her kids’ exposure, such as using special filtration pitchers that were offered by the city.

Bautista had already been planning to move out of her apartment, but she made it a priority to find a new place without lead. “I just know lead is very dangerous, just like carbon monoxide,” she said.

Solving part of the problem only makes it worse

In the 19th century, pipes made of malleable and durable lead helped drive the explosive growth of American cities. Sentiments started to shift later in the century, as medical journals documented occasional epidemics of severe, waterborne lead poisoning, causing such symptoms as blue-lined gums, incapacitation and even death.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said there are no safe levels of lead, which is now recognized as a neurotoxin that can cause lower IQ, developmental delays and behavioral problems in children, as well as kidney and cardiovascular problems in adults.

But there are still up to 12.8m houses and apartment buildings connected to the water system with lead lines in the US, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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These lead service lines, as they are known, fork off from the water main, which follows the course of the street, like branches from a tree trunk, and supply individual buildings. In doing so, these lines pass from public property on to private property. Cities that are undertaking lead replacement programs often ask homeowners to pay to replace the portions under their private property. If owners don’t pay, some cities essentially cut the lines in half, removing the city-owned portions of the lead lines but leaving the lines on private property intact.

One problem, for those in buildings with no replacements, is that they still have lead pipes. Another is that disrupting or cutting the old pipes can cause more lead to break loose and flow into the residents’ water.

In 2011, the EPA’s science advisory board said the tactic is “frequently associated with short-term elevated drinking water lead levels for some period of time after replacement, suggesting the potential for harm, rather than benefit during that time period”.

The American Water Works Association, an industry group for water utilities, recommends against doing partial replacements of lead pipes. “You’re getting rid of some lead, but in the process, you’re disturbing the system and may be stirring up more lead than if you had just left the whole thing alone,” said Paul Olson, senior manager of standards for the group, in a 2017 trade article.

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