A push to replace aging infrastructure to improve water quality throughout the country may be having the unintended consequence of exposing residents to dangerous levels of lead.
Water experts say replacing mains and service lines, some dating to the 1800s, is necessary. But the replacements can increase the amount of lead in water — indefinitely, some claim — because of corrosion that gets disturbed in the lead pipes that run into a homeowner’s property.
Copper, commonly used in service lines that run from the main to an individual’s property line, can also react with the lead to cause leaching into the water supply, experts say.
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There is no safe level of lead consumption, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead has been linked to cognitive impairments and IQ loss in children and fetal death for pregnant women, among other problems.
Public water systems for decades have been engaged in the expensive process of replacing their aging mains and service lines. But in most cases the replacements don’t include the connecting pipes that run on private property — and are made of lead. That means new lines are running water into the existing lines that run into homes and businesses in the region, many of them older structures.
Critics say these partial replacements can increase lead levels in these structures, and they say public officials aren’t doing enough to alert people to the dangers of exposure.
“Consumers have no choice on this,” said Marc Edwards, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech and a nationally known water expert who exposed last year’s massive lead contamination in Flint, Mich. “The fight never seems to end here, because governments do not do a great job at fixing problems they’ve created.”
Edwards is familiar with Dayton’s water infrastructure because he was hired by Miami Valley Hospital to find the source of elevated lead levels in its water supply. His team later attributed the cause to the replacement of a water main as part of a construction project along Warren and Brown streets near the hospital.
None of those who had their blood tested for lead poisoning were found to have levels above the danger threshold the Center for Disease Control uses to assess risk.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it is assessing the effectiveness of replacing only part of the water infrastructure, commonly known as partial service line replacements. Federal guidelines also require water systems serving more than 50,000 people — such as Dayton’s — to implement a corrosion control program through chemical treatment to the drinking water.
Eliminating old and corroded pipes won’t be completed anytime soon. Dayton began an ambitious project in 2013 to replace about 1 percent of its more than 800 miles of water and sewer infrastructure each year.
Under federal law, cities and municipalities are required to replace the utility-owned part of the service lines — the part that runs to the curb. Homeowners are responsible for the lines on their property.
Local water officials say they are following federal guidelines in making infrastructure improvements and say steps are taken to inform homeowners of any potential risks.
“The drinking water here locally meets and exceeds all state and federal drinking water requirements,” said Pat Turnbull, director of Montgomery County Environmental Services. “The biggest thing we need to work on here regionally — and this is not just here, but nationwide — is reinvesting in our infrastructure.”
Dayton, which supplies water to the county, has received numerous awards for its treatment program. The drinking water supplied to the distribution system does not contain lead at a detectable level, according to the city. But if the pipes that run on private property are bad, residents still could be consuming tainted water, according to those who study water systems.
“If you are ever unlucky, you can get a massive lead dose when you don’t even know it, and where the water is normally fairly safe,” Edwards said. “If you drank that glass of water, it would be the equivalent of eating 10 lead paint chips.”
10 million homes affected
According to the U.S. EPA, the total number of lead service lines is unknown, but the federal agency estimates that as many as 10 million homes are connected to service lines that are at least partially made of lead.
The push to replace lead pipes in U.S. water systems began decades ago with the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule. The law, which was revised in 2000 and 2007, applies to 68,000 public water systems nationwide.
The intent was to protect citizens from lead in their water supply, but it’s not clear to what extent the replacements have met that purpose.
The U.S. EPA released a white paper in October that outlined key issues found with lead service line replacement. In 2010, the EPA Science Advisory Board found that partial lead service line replacements have not been shown to reliably reduce drinking water lead levels.
Edwards goes a step further. He and other researchers say lead levels from the partial service line replacements can spike in the short term — ranging from days to months and potentially longer. Federal EPA standards state that lead levels must be less than 15 parts per billion to be considered safe for human consumption.
Edwards’ 48-month pilot study showed the worst-case scenarios were created by partial replacements that combined old lead pipe with newly installed copper pipe. Both the city of Dayton and Montgomery County use copper as the preferred replacement material for service lines.
“If you’re replacing it with copper, the higher lead level can persist forever,” said Edwards, who recommends a more expensive plastic pipe and filter system to reduce leaching caused by a chemical reaction between lead and copper.
Edwards is also critical of government agencies that he says fail to warn the public of the potential dangers.
Sampling methods could miss “very large spikes” of lead in water because utilities tend not to target houses likely to see increased exposure, he said. Federal standards also allow most businesses and homes to go without regular testing — sometimes for years at a time.
“(Water utilities) offer to the consumer: ‘You can replace your part of the lead pipe,’ ” Edwards said. “But they never tell the consumer that if they don’t do that, they might be endangering the health of their family. If they were honest about the health risk, that would raise questions about the whole program.”
A new law in Ohio, House Bill 512, brings fresh rules to address lead notification and testing for community water systems. The law, which went into effect Sept. 9, requires water systems to notify a homeowner within two business days if elevated lead levels are found.
“That has greatly been shortened from the federal rule,” said Beth Messer, the assistant chief for the Ohio EPA division of drinking and ground waters.
The law also states that operators must provide system-wide educational information within 30 days. If the lead tests are higher than the federal threshold, the public water system owner is required to provide health screenings and blood lead level testings to impacted residents.
The Ohio EPA and public water systems must comply with the new law by early January. Ohio EPA officials said the agency recommends full service line replacements when lead is found in the system. The state is looking at ways to incentivize full replacements for public water providers.
Messer said the law also requires public water system operators to determine where lead service lines are at in the community.
“They can map [the service lines] and it gives us a better idea of where they should be sampling,” Messer said. “It also provides information to the community about where those lead service lines might be.”
Replacing existing water lines — even without full replacement — is a huge public expense.
As part of its asset management program the city of Dayton since 2013 has replaced about 23 miles of water main at a cost of $29.4 million.
Over the next 10 years, the city plans to invest between $160 million and $180 million in upgrades for its water and sewer systems.
Michael Powell, the city’s water department director, said Dayton’s protocol is to replace aging service lines when the city replaces a water main line. This isn’t the only time service lines are replaced, but it happens frequently.
“We’re targeting mains that are based upon the age of the water main, the break history, and we’re looking at road construction that’s planned,” he said.
The mains — some of which were installed in the 1800s — are mostly cast iron, but the service lines were almost entirely lead. The mains are being replaced with ductile iron and the service lines with copper, according to the city. Plastic pipe lining is used on some of the mains, although it is more expensive, Powell said.
“When we install a new main, we replace all of the service lines,” he said.
The city doesn’t track where the lead service lines are located, according to Powell. He said he also wasn’t aware of how many lead service lines have been replaced.
Montgomery County also maintains 1,400 miles of water main lines. As of early November, the county had five in-progress water main replacement projects in Centerville, Washington Twp., Kettering and Harrison Twp.
“Much of our infrastructure was built by our fathers and grandfathers and grandmothers,” Turnbull said. “We need to reinvest in that system so that we can continue providing high-quality drinking water now and in the future.”
Turnbull said the county’s mains are primarily cast iron, though some are concrete. The service lines, typically galvanized metal or lead, are being replaced with copper.The county will replace about 0.5 percent of its system per year, he said.
The county sends a notification letter to homeowners when service lines are replaced, outlining a homeowner’s responsibilities and making it evident that lead levels could spike for several weeks after the replacement.
“We did spend quite a bit of time looking around the country about what our peers are doing,” Turnbull said. “Because of where the ownership of the service lines begin and end, we felt it was very important for us to provide notice to our customers that we had found a lead service, and then replace the lead service on our part of the system.”
‘Disparate levels of protection’
After the pipe replacements, Montgomery County collects samplings within 72 hours, two weeks, four weeks and three months, Turnbull said. The county has grant funding for homeowners who want to replace their service lines, but cannot afford it, he said.
The U.S. EPA report in October warned of “disparate levels of protection” caused by homeowners who can’t afford to replace water lines on their property.
But there are no easy solutions. Running new lines on private property not only would require an enormous investment of taxpayer dollars, but it could also invite possible legal problems.
The National Drinking Water Advisory Council has recommended “proactive” full lead service line replacements, but the EPA has questioned the legal ramifications of mandating pipe replacements on private property. Several cities, however, have implemented full service line replacements, including Lansing, Mich., and Madison, Wis.
Powell, the Dayton water director, said the city’s replacements affect only the publicly-owned portion of the water line.
“We can’t go in and say, ‘Oh, OK since we’re replacing our portion of the service line, we’re going to replace yours as well,’” he said. “I mean, that’s the property owners’ responsibility. It’s their property.”
As one small measure to reduce the risk of lead poisoning in their homes, residents can install a filter on their taps.
Other solutions are more expensive.
In its October report, the U.S. EPA said it is considering proposing a full lead service line replacement program, which would include the lines running to private homes, but it will also evaluate how much lead can be removed from lines through “optimized corrosion control.”
Corrosion control treatment can include adding chemicals like orthophosphates to create a barrier between the lead in the pipes and the drinking water that flows through them.
Dayton water officials say their corrosion control treatment limits the leaching of lead in the distribution system. Montgomery County is a customer of Dayton’s water treatment, so its corrosion control is facilitated by the city.
Tom Hut, bureau of special services supervisor at Dayton-Montgomery County Public Health, said taking steps to reduce lead exposure is especially important for pregnant women, children under the age of 6, and formula-fed babies.
Of the 7,000 children under the age of 6 who were tested for lead exposure, about 85 of them had blood lead levels over the reference level of 5 micrograms per deciliter, Hut said. However, the CDC says any lead in the blood level of children is a concern.
The potential for lead poisoning has some area residents concerned.
“It’s nerve-wracking, especially having little kids, too,” said Amber Curtis, a Dayton resident. “There are so many projects in the city. The thought of it bothers me, but what can you do?”