Lead pipes have a long and toxic history with centuries of plumbing and water distribution. From ancient Rome to the United States, civilizations used lead pipes and lead service lines in water and wastewater systems due to their malleability, high durability and corrosion resistance.
However, research has shown how lead in water pipes can harm the human body through repeated exposure. The EPA determined that drinking water’s maximum contaminant level should be at zero due to its toxicity.
Unfortunately, lead exposure in water is still a problem in the U.S. The Flint, Michigan water crisis is one of the most recent examples of large scale contamination in a water supply.
Since there is so much evidence of lead’s harmful effects, why is lead contamination still a problem?
As mentioned earlier, lead was used as early as the Roman Empire due to its malleability and corrosion resistance. They were able to manipulate lead to forge revolutionary waterways.
A historical review of lead poisoning noted some lead poisoning signs as early as the second century BC. However, centuries later, we continued to use lead for plumbing and water distribution.
Evidence of the metal’s effects on people through inhalation and ingestion grew with more research. By 2000, childhood lead poisoning was deemed as a major public health problem. One of the ways people were being exposed to lead was through corroded water pipes.
Lead can leach into water over time from natural corroding agents like oxygen or slightly acidic water. These corroding agents wear down the inside of lead water pipes and carry radical lead particles to homes and businesses. Due to the corrosion process, federal and local governments have poured millions of dollars into remediation efforts for lead pipes.
Lead pipe remediation is the removal of any objects or substances that expose people to lead. For water utilities, this usually means replacing lead service lines with safer materials like PVC.
The EPA created a regulation to control lead contamination in drinking water known as the Lead and Copper Rule in 1991. The LCR set these standards in place:
Since the LCR’s inception, lead exceedances have dropped by 90 percent.
Teaching customers about the dangers and consequences of using and consuming water with lead is an essential first step to eliminating its use. New additions to the LCR include informing customers within 24 hours of detection of lead in a water stream and lead testing for schools to prevent exposure to children.
Natural acidity in water can corrode the lead pipe’s structure and put lead into the water delivered to customers. There are chemical treatments that help prevent corrosion and fortify the interior of water pipes. Harmless additives, like phosphate, can attach to loose lead particles in the water supply and create a barrier for the pipe’s surface.
Lead pipe and service line replacement is the goal for water and wastewater utilities to prevent lead exposure. The cost of replacement can be high, which is why lead pipes haven’t been replaced across the board. There are federal grants and funding that have aided in reducing the burden on utilities and consumers.
Lead remediation is a challenge that utilities must face to keep their customers safe. Unfortunately, many smaller communities don’t have the resources or staff to carry out lead abatement projects. However, partnering with an expert water and wastewater operator, like Alliance Water Resources, can help you manage and perform projects like replacing lead service lines.
Do you need a partner to help your utility overcome regulatory challenges? Contact us today to see how we can help you serve cleaner water more efficiently.