When the infrastructure of this country was being built, the materials chosen were based on their characteristics, availability, and longevity. Lead is strong, flexible and doesn’t leak. For these reasons, lead was the chosen material for water pipes. What we didn’t know is that lead can be toxic when it leaches into drinking water. According to the Environmental Protection Association (EPA), there are between 6 and 10 million lead service line pipes in the United States.
As long as there are buildings built before 1986 that contain pipes that transport water for the intention of consumption, lead in drinking water will always re-emerge as a news topic. Lead in drinking water occurs when lead pipes (or pipes soldered with lead containing materials) corrode and enter the water stream. Across the country in residential homes and commercial buildings, lead containing materials are still present in drinking water.
Due to this issue, numerous federal, state, and local regulations are being codified to address lead in drinking water.
Lead in drinking water has the potential to be harmful to human health even when low levels of the toxic metal are ingested because it accumulates in the body over time. The EPA has set the maximum contaminant level for lead in drinking water at zero because lead is considered a toxic metal in any concentration. The risks associated with the consumption of lead in drinking water may include both behavior and physical effects. In adults, ingestion of lead in drinking water can result in high blood pressure, headache and joint pains, as well as difficulty with memory and mood disorders. The population most at risk for negative side effects after and during ingesting lead contaminated water are children. A small amount of lead in drinking water may not cause undue concern for an adult but that same dose may have significant impacts on children. High levels of lead may cause a variety of problems ranging from physical damage (including, but not limited to heart disease, hearing problems, anemia, stunted growth) and mental impairment (including but not limited to behavior and learning problems, developmental delays, and hyperactivity).
The EPA has said that it will release new standards for lead in drinking water for the first time in 20 years. There have been a variety of lead in drinking water crisis in the past 10 years, most notably in Flint Michigan in 2014. The presence of lead in drinking water is most often tested in the areas where the most susceptible population is typically located at such as residential homes, childcare facilities, and schools. Currently, each State/Commonwealth has their own set of rules and regulations regarding lead in drinking water. For example, in the State of New Jersey all districts are required to test for lead in drinking water in three-year cycles (for example 2021-2022 and again in 2024-2025). A qualified consultant is required to come into the school and conduct a lead in drinking water assessment/sampling plan, provide reporting, and mitigation strategies should the level of lead in drinking water was exceeds the minimum of an action level of 15ug/L.
The work and cost associated with replacing all of the existing lead pipes throughout the nation is astronomical. The American Water Works Association has estimated that completely replacing all lead pipes would cost an estimated one trillion dollars. There are some remedial measures that can be implemented, with respect to schools and childcare facilities, for lead in drinking water. These may include flushing the water systems or water treatment measures, shutting off all water outlets that are used for drinking and providing alternatives drinking water, such as bottled water, and/or post signs that indicate the water faucets are not for drinking purposes but for handwashing only. The public, most especially parents, students, and employees of the facility, should be notified of the levels of lead in drinking water.