Perspective | Biden is right: America’s lead pipes need to be replaced. Here’s why.

In his State of the Union address last week, President Biden spoke about the importance of replacing lead pipes to ensure that all Americans have clean water to drink. Vice President Harris also highlighted this issue on a recent visit to Newark, where she called the use of lead pipes to deliver drinking water a “public health crisis” that fueled socioeconomic disparities around the country, including in Flint, Mich., the most infamous case of water poisoning in recent U.S. history. “Lead pipes do exist in high-income communities, but in high-income communities they have the income to fix it, which means that whether it gets fixed or not might be a function of how much money you have,” Harris said. “And that’s not right.”

Although Congress passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill, it won’t adequately fund needed upgrades to bring the nation’s drinking water infrastructure into compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2021 Lead and Copper Rule. Lead exposure from all sources from paint to pipes in the United States prematurely kills 412,000 people each year, about as many as died of covid-19 in 2021. Globally in 2019 it shaved 21.7 million years off peoples’ life spans.

How and why did the nation’s drinking water infrastructure become so lead-based and thus toxic? The dangers of this material have been understood since the 19th century. Yet many municipalities embraced lead enthusiastically, persuaded by cost-benefit analysis and the public relations efforts of the lead industry. Even as scientific evidence mounted against using lead in the mid-20th century, the practice continued. But because it disproportionately harmed poor, Black and other marginalized communities, fiscal calculations outweighed concerns about public health.

Before the Civil War, most U.S. potable water piping used iron. But soon industrialization enabled the mass use of lead to replace iron pipes and lay new pipes. This was an easy choice since lead was cheaper, lasted twice as long and was a much more flexible metal than iron. Consequently, by the turn of the 20th century, more than 70 percent of population-dense cities, including New York, Chicago, Detroit and Boston, used lead service pipelines to deliver water to residents.

But even as municipalities were embracing lead pipelines in the late 19th century, medical journals and popular press articles warned of the public health consequences of ingesting lead. This prompted many cities and towns to prohibit or reduce the use of lead in pipes, even though the alternatives were more costly. New York City, for example, stopped using lead for pipes because many builders’ unions demanded that copper be used instead. But in cities that were built or grew a lot between 1900 and 1940, areas with cheaper housing and weak unions continued to install lead pipes.

This history coincided with the Great Migration of African Americans from the Deep South to northern, Midwestern and western cities from the 1910s through the middle of the century. Black Americans along with other people of color moved to urban centers where de facto segregation and redlining disproportionately forced them to live in housing serviced by lead pipes.

Fearing that public knowledge and awareness of the growing problem of lead poisoning in drinking water threatened their core business model, in 1928 the Lead Industries Association (LIA), a trade organization, launched a massive campaign to convince governments at the local, state and federal levels to continue using lead.

With the onset of the Great Depression soon thereafter, the LIA helped change the metal’s reputation from a potential poison to an economically beneficial material whose effects on public health were minimal or unknown. The LIA lobbied plumbers’ organizations, local water authorities and federal officials. It distributed “educational” newsletters and books that praised the advantages of lead over other materials and provided practical advice on the installation and repair of lead pipes.

In 1938, LIA agent Robert Dick enumerated the campaign’s accomplishments, which included nine cities and towns revising their codes to call for lead for pipes and 48 cities and towns working on revising their codes. Two years later, the LIA was boasting that “lead plumbing is now included in many Federal government master specifications where it had been excluded for many years.”

A 1957 memo written by an industry doctor revealed how the industry deliberately used racial and ethnic prejudice to counter the “adverse publicity” of childhood lead poisoning. They framed it as a “problem of slum dwelling and relatively ignorant parents” from “Negro and Puerto Rican families.”

Yet, independent scientists continued to find that lead in water caused many detrimental health consequences and even death. Geochemist Clair Patterson at MIT published a paper in 1965 demonstrating that acceptance of lead levels as normal and safe was founded on nothing more than an unproven assumption. The paper garnered the federal government’s attention. But the LIA denied it by falsely claiming that “lead is normal” as late as 1970 — the year that President Richard Nixon established the EPA.

Although Nixon supported the EPA and signed landmark environmental legislation such as the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1971, he delegated much of the EPA’s work to the states. Many state politicians failed to recognize or address environmental racism perpetuated by the lead and other polluting industries.

Eventually, greater awareness of environmental racism sparked a movement in the 1980s centered on environmental justice. Anti-lead activists wanted to address the failure of federal and state governments to pass and implement effective and equitable legislation to retrofit all lead service lines. In 1986 Congress paid heed and amended the Safe Drinking Water Act to prohibit “the use of pipes, solder or flux that were not ‘lead free’ in public water systems or plumbing in facilities providing water for human consumption.”

Despite this federal prohibition, lead service pipe replacements in low-income communities undertaken after 1986 were often only partial retrofits that could sometimes even increase lead levels by stirring up sedentary lead.

As a result, in 1991 the EPA established a Lead and Copper Rule that set a maximum limit of 15 parts per billion of lead in drinking water, even though it knew no amount of lead was safe. When the problem of poisoning from lead pipes persisted, in 1996 Congress prohibited “the introduction into commerce of any pipe, pipe or plumbing fitting or fixture that is not lead free.”

And yet, lead remained in millions of service pipes and therefore in the drinking water they delivered to tens of millions of unsuspecting urban and rural residents.

Faced with a budget crisis and inaction at the state and federal level, Flint’s 2014 crisis finally raised sustained national media attention to how such purely fiscal calculations could seriously endanger public health. Indeed, Scientific American reported in 2019 that while “poverty remains a potent predictor of lead poisoning, the victims span the American spectrum — poor and rich, rural and urban, black and white.”

Without significant government investment in these communities to fully replace drinking water infrastructure, residents will continue to be forced to drink lead-contaminated water.

Recognizing that the LIA’s lead promotion campaign beginning in 1928 and misguided government policy exacerbated this tragedy, the Biden administration’s Build Back Better Act guarantees $10 billion for a long overdue full retrofit of all estimated 10 million lead service lines nationwide, with the potential to unlock another $65 billion.

Even though fully retrofitting these pipelines would cost about $28 billion to $47 billion in total, and take years to complete, it would help redress the historic wrong epitomized by the water crises that have struck Flint, Newark and many other cities and communities in recent decades.

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