Photo illustration: Phil Anderson
Photo illustration: Phil Anderson

Many communities have problems with lead in their drinking water. It is a concern for public and private water systems all across the country. It is a problem for many individual houses because of old plumbing. This has been known for almost a century. Even after a crisis with Flint, Michigan’s water, the slow progress toward fixing the problem is disturbing. 

Most disturbing is the lack of concern by the general public. It is classic out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality. Lead in our drinking water is illustrative of our national propensity to ignore the real needs of people. It is an example of our tendency to ignore problems until they are a crisis. It shows how we foster poor personal and public decisions with shortsighted thinking. Too often we, as individuals and as a people, are our own worst enemy. 

Lead is a potent toxin that affects mental development in children. Lead can accumulate in the body to cause irreversible brain damage and slow growth in children. The Center for Disease Control says there is no safe blood lead level in children. They estimate 2.5 percent of small children in the country have elevated levels of lead. Old housing in poor neighborhoods is one source of lead poisoning. But the problem can affect people at all economic levels and in rural or urban locations.  

The usual source of contamination is lead pipes in houses and municipal water systems. The Wisconsin State Journal says Wisconsin has 64 public water systems that exceed EPA limits for lead. An estimated 176,000 Wisconsin houses have lead service entry lines. Also older houses can have lead solder joints and plumbing fixtures that contain lead. The Reuters News Agency reported that nationally nearly 3,000 communities have lead poisoning rates at least double those in Flint. One of these is Milwaukee with an estimated 70,000 houses built before 1940 with lead water service lines. Although some $50 million has been spent in Milwaukee to replace old pipes, it is estimated it may take 50 years to fix all the problems. 

According to the Duluth News Tribune, Duluth officials say the city’s water is safe. This is because of the high quality of the source, Lake Superior, and the diligence of the city. Duluth has procedures for testing and mitigation that were lacking in Flint. But despite good management Duluth still has lead in parts of the system. Lead is in the joints of the old cast-iron water mains that still serve much of the city. Duluth still has about 2,000 (7%of the total) lead pipes connecting mains to curbside valves. The city has a large number of older homes with lead service lines or lead leaching plumbing. The plumbing in homes is the responsibility of the homeowner so lead in water may continue to be a problem in these homes.

One of the problems with getting rid of old pipes is that the whole system must be replaced. Replacing the municipal or water company pipes while leaving privately owned pipes can actually increase the amount of lead reaching the water tap. Removing part of the system can release more lead from the remaining lines. But homeowners are often unwilling, or unable, to pay the average $3,600 it costs. Even with financial help few homeowners will voluntarily replace service entrance pipes. In addition they often do nothing with all the old plumbing in their houses. 

The good news is solutions are possible. Problems can be solved when there is adequate pubic and private action. Lead was successfully phased out of paint and gasoline in the late 1970s.  Madison, Wisconsin is an example of what can be done. Madison may be the only city in the country that has eliminated the worst risks by replacing all lead service pipes. Completed in 2007, an 11-year, $15.5 million project replaced 8,000 lead service pipes in the city. The project included help for homeowners who were required to replace lead service pipes from the city lines to their homes.  

In Flint. Michigan the problem was created by the cost cutting Republican controlled state government. To save money, the state appointed “emergency” financial manager changed the source of the city water supply. Other officials failed to adequately test or take standard remedial action to control lead levels. This is a classic example of how Republicans put money before people. 

Business lobbies usually add to the difficulty in finding solutions to problems. They typically fight any restrictions on business regardless of the consequences for the public. In 2017, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (the state’s most powerful business lobby) opposed legislation to allow water utilities to assist homeowners with financing replacement water lines. WMC apposed the legislation because they wanted taxpayers to pay the costs, rather than the utility companies. The legislation still passed but was watered down to provide only half the benefit to homeowners. Again, money is more important than the health of children. 

A recent Sierra Club magazine article provides a historical example of the impact of powerful business lobbying. By the 1920’s many communities had outlawed lead pipes. They knew about the health problems of lead in drinking water. But by intense lobbying efforts, the lead industry was able to overturn many of these bans just as American cities were expanding. It was not until 1986 that there was a national prohibition on lead in plumbing. Business rules and profit is more important than people. 

It is easy to blame the usual suspects – government bureaucrats, venal politicians, or greedy big business. But we all have responsibility for the inaction on lead in our water. Too often we are not willing to pay for what we actually need. We would rather have tax cuts, no matter how small, than safe water. We would rather have the individual “freedom” to fritter away our money on purchases from the consumer culture. Many of us voted for the politicians who have contributed to the problems. Too often as homeowners, consumers, voters, and community members we have made poor choices. 

Lead in our water is only one of many problems that result from our shortsighted behaviors. Unfortunately, our children will live with the consequences. They will reap what we have sown.