Childhood lead poisoning has declined significantly in the U.S. over the past 50 years. That’s largely due to the elimination of leaded gasoline in the 1980s and the banning of most lead-based paints.
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 10 million households and 400,000 schools and child care centers have service lines or other fixtures that contain lead. These pipes are ticking time bombs that can leach toxic lead into drinking water if they corrode. As long as they remain in service, children and families are vulnerable.
The same is true of lead paint, which is still present in many homes built before consumer use of lead paint was banned in 1978. Because it tastes sweet, children sometimes chew on paint chips or painted wood.
The Biden administration will spend US$15 billion from the recently enacted infrastructure bill to replace lead service lines, faucets and fixtures over the next five years and is seeking additional money in the pending Build Back Better Act to reduce lead hazards in public housing and low-income communities. I see this as a key priority, since Black children and children living in poverty have average blood lead levels that are 13% higher than the national average.
Lead poisoning does permanent damage
Lead poisoning is a major public health problem because lead has permanent impacts on the brain, particularly in children. Young brains are still actively forming the amazing network of neurons that comprise their hardware.
Neurons are designed to use calcium, the most abundant mineral in the human body, as a transmitter to rapidly pass signals. Lead molecules look a lot like calcium molecules, so if they are present in a child’s body, they can penetrate the brain, impair neuron development and cause permanent neural damage.
The Biden administration’s plan calls for replacing 100% of lead service lines across the nation – a goal that the EPA aims to write into regulations by 2024. Step 1 is finding the pipes.
Most U.S. cities have countless miles of lead service lines buried beneath streets and sidewalks and feeding into people’s homes. Utilities don’t know where many of these aging lines are and don’t have enough data to map them. Replacing them will require significant analysis, modeling, data and some guesswork.
Lead service lines typically develop a protective “plaque” of minerals on their inside walls after a short time, which effectively separates the toxic lead pipe from the water flowing through it. This coating, which is called scale, remains stable if the chemistry of the water coursing through it doesn’t change. But if that chemistry is altered, disaster can ensue.
This rapidly corroded the protective plaque lining the city’s pipes, flushing highly absorbable lead into homes. Tens of thousands of children were exposed over two years before the problem was adequately identified and fixed.
In Flint, state-appointed managers decided to save money during a fiscal crisis in 2014 by switching from Detroit water to water from the Flint River. But regulators did not require enough chemical analysis to determine what additives should be used to maintain the pipe plaque. And they skipped the typical step of adding phosphate, which binds chemically with lead and prevents it from leaching out of pipes, in order to save about $100 per day.
Corrosion chemistry is well controlled in many U.S. cities, but it is not a perfect science. And utilities don’t always have detection systems that adequately alert water suppliers to dangers at the tap. That’s why removing lead pipes is the only sure way to avoid the threat of more water crises.
My own city, Indianapolis, has a population of about 850,000 – about 10 times larger than Flint – and officials have only a rough idea of where to find the lead service lines. There are ways to statistically model the likelihood that a given portion of the water system has lead service lines, using information such as water main sizes, locations and construction dates, but they are imperfect.
Cities will need to get creative to make whatever funds they get go as far as possible. As one example, I am working with colleagues to develop a citizen science project that will provide thousands of tests for lead at taps around Indianapolis. This effort, a partnership with the University of Notre Dame funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, may augment modeling with real data on levels of lead in homes, and will increase public awareness of this issue.
In spite of these challenges, I believe more urgency on this issue is long overdue. Every lead pipe that’s replaced will pay off in higher lifetime earnings and lower rates of illness for families that gain access to safer tap water.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on May 4, 2021.
by Gabriel Filippelli, Chancellor’s Professor of Earth Sciences and Executive Director, Indiana University Environmental Resilience Institute, IUPUI
Resale has taken off among those looking to save the planet and spend less on gifts during what can be the most wasteful time of the year — the December holidays. This year’s supply chain delays have provided extra motivation.
The average American’s everyday interactions with energy sources are limited. They range from turning appliances on or off, to commuting, to paying utility bills.
The connections between those acts and rising global temperatures may seem distant.
However, individuals hold many keys to unlocking solutions to climate change – the biggest challenge our species currently faces – which is perhaps why the fossil fuel industry spent decades misleading and misinforming the public about it.
These actions combined could bridge the “emissions gap”: the significant difference between the greenhouse gas emissions expected globally and how much they need to drop in the next few decades to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Climate change is outracing government action
People have worked for decades to slow climate change by altering national energy policies. Several states, for example, have renewable portfolio standards for utilities that require them to increase their use of renewable energy.
But 30 years of evidence from international climate talks suggests that even when nations commit on paper to reducing emissions, they seldom achieve those cuts.
So if government, technology or geoengineering aren’t good answers, what are?
Pledges, goals and targets for shifting from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources are only as good as the efforts by utilities and governments to reach them. Citizen participation and action have proved effective at compelling decision-makers to act. For example, scholars studying the economic, political and social dynamics that led five U.S. municipalities to adopt 100% renewable energy found that grassroots citizen advocacy was one of the key factors that drove the change.
According to the Sierra Club, through citizen-driven action, over 180 cities, more than 10 counties and eight U.S. states have made commitments to transitioning to 100% renewable energy. Consequently, over 100 million U.S residents already live in a community with a 100% renewable energy target.
These steps include weatherization and using energy-efficient appliances, as well as energy efficiency measures such as turning down thermostats, washing laundry with cold water and air-drying it rather than using a dryer.
So since most governments aren’t acting quickly enough, and many technology and geoengineering solutions are still unproven or come with high risks, emission reduction goals won’t be achieved without incorporating additional strategies.
The evidence is clear that these strategies should include millions of average people factoring climate change into their everyday activities regarding their communities, purchases and personal energy use.
As the environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote in 2006 about dealing with climate change, “There are no silver bullets, only silver buckshot.”
A network of mycelium runs through all the world’s dirt, helping plants grow and sequestering carbon. A massive citizen science project to visualize these ‘coral reefs of the soil’ is designed to help efforts to save it.
In a case pitting Wasco County, Oregon residents and a newspaper against the City of Dalles, Oregon, a court will decide whether a public interest exception in a state law will mandate the disclosure of potential trade secrets. After a reporter from The Oregonian inquired into Google’s water use, the City of Dalles (“Dalles”) filed a Complaint against both the reporter and the newspaper (the “Defendants”) seeking declaratory relief, requesting that the court declare Google’s water use a trade secret under Oregon’s Public Records Law, ORS 192.311 et seq, and the Oregon Uniform Trade Secrets Act, ORS 646.461 et seq. As described below, the issue is whether Google’s water use is a trade secret, and if so, if the public interest exception, which may permit public disclosure of trade secrets, applies.