Although the toxicity of lead has been known for a century, the United States still lags in controlling lead in drinking water. Lead exposure has been known to cause brain damage, with impacts to intelligence and impulse control.
Indeed, respected studies show that the reduction in U.S. crime rates at the end of the 20th century is associated with the decision to require unleaded gasoline, which lowered elevated blood lead levels in residents living near freeways. A small legal boom also developed around removal of lead paint from older housing.
Yet the country has failed to act aggressively to remove lead pipes from our public water systems. Even though there is consensus that no level of exposure to lead is acceptable, the states have not even been required to identify the existing lead pipes, let alone remove them.
The recent Infrastructure Act and action by EPA to strengthen the Lead and Copper Rule now promise some significant progress, if not an ultimate solution. The Infrastructure Act provides $15 billion for lead pipe and paint removal, which is certainly enough to allow a good start on the work, although the cost of pipe removal alone has been estimated to cost $40 billion to $50 billion.
However, the limited funding will require prioritization, and the absence of information on the extent and location of lead water pipes puts a significant crimp in agency ability to establish plans for efficient removal. Likewise, the money will go to states for administration of the removal efforts, highlighting the absence of current state planning for such programs.
EPA appears to now be taking this seriously, after the public relations and public health disasters in Flint, Mich., and Newark, N.J. The agency just announced that it will develop guidance for removal programs, then begin to distribute funding to the states.
EPA also said it will retain in place the highly criticized Lead and Copper regulation promulgated by the Trump Administration because the regulation, while delaying the pace of required removal, also required that agencies develop information on the extent of lead pipe usage. EPA added that it intended to address the stringency issue later, promulgating a new Copper and Lead regulation by 2024.
This could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to remove a genuine scourge that has for decades affected the health of populations in low-income areas. Leave aside the benefits of job creation for plumbers and pipefitters—albeit those are certainly substantial as well—the country cannot afford to miss this chance despite its enormous cost. Put differently, what the country cannot accept is continuation of the enormous cost in lost human resources associated with lead exposure.