By Silke Schmidt and Dee J. Hall
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Experts, and even some regulators, say existing laws are failing to protect Wisconsin and the nation from harmful exposure to lead that leaches into drinking water from aging plumbing — a danger shown by the public-health emergency in Flint, Mich.
At least 176,000 so-called lead service lines connect older Wisconsin homes to the iron water mains that deliver municipal water, according to an estimate by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Milwaukee alone, where 60 percent of the state’s known lead-poisoned children live, has 70,000 lead service lines.
Regulators concede that the Lead and Copper Rule, the 25-year-old federal law that seeks to minimize the danger from these lead pipes and indoor plumbing fixtures, is failing on several fronts:
- Methods for sampling often fail to detect the highest level of lead in a consumer’s home.
- Too few homes are sampled, and those that are may not be in the neighborhoods most at risk.
- The requirement that utilities replace some lead lines when they exceed federal thresholds may actually cause dangerous increases of lead in drinking water.
Lead is primarily leached into Wisconsin’s drinking water by the corrosion of lead pipes and indoor plumbing components. Health effects of lead include irreversible brain damage in children under age 6 and an increased risk of miscarriage in pregnant women.
Decades ago, when it became clear that lead was one of the worst toxins for the developing brain, U.S. regulatory agencies began to eliminate the heavy metal from gasoline, paint and new plumbing. But the efforts to address the nation’s existing water infrastructure were limited.
Lead hazards underestimated
The Madison Water Utility was the first major utility in the nation to demonstrate that a full replacement of both the public and the private portions of lead service lines was possible. But it was neither easy nor cheap.
“It was quite a contentious thing,” Tom Heikkinen, the water utility’s current general manager, said at a regulatory meeting in May 2015. “I’m glad I wasn’t here at the time.”
The effort to replace all of Madison’s lead pipes took more than a decade beginning in 2001, and cost roughly $19.4 million. About 20 percent of the cost was borne by homeowners. The city covered half the cost of replacement, up to $1,000, for the 5,600 property owners who participated.
Robin Piper, the utility’s financial manager at the time, said the solution “made the most sense in the long run.”
It made the city’s drinking water safe and did not pollute Madison’s lakes with orthophosphate, an anti-corrosive that was the other solution Madison could have chosen for preventing lead from leaching into water.
Sandra Rusch Walton, spokeswoman for Milwaukee Water Works, said the cost of replacing all of Milwaukee’s 70,000 lead pipes has been estimated at between $511 million and $756 million.
And cost is not the only barrier, said Amy Barrilleaux, spokeswoman for the Madison Water Utility.
“Just getting Madison’s lead service replacement program approved by lawmakers and the agencies that oversee us took years, not counting the actual pipe replacement work itself, which took another decade,” she said. “It’s not surprising that other utilities have been reluctant to go down that path, but we’re glad we did.”
— Silke Schmidt
The American Water Works Association estimated in 1990 that the U.S. water infrastructure had about 3.3 million lead service lines and 6.4 million connections made of lead, many of them installed well over 100 years ago. Wisconsin is one of nine states, all in the Midwest and Northeast, where they are particularly common.
In addition to Milwaukee, several other Wisconsin communities have a high percentage of lead service lines, including Wausau, Wauwatosa and Racine, according to the EPA.
A 2008 study found that these service lines account for 50 to 75 percent of lead contamination in public tap water, with most of the remainder due to indoor lead pipes and plumbing components, such as faucets and connections.
The risk of these aging pipes is so high that Madison’s public water utility made the controversial decision to replace all of its lead service lines beginning in 2001 — a move now seen as a model for other cities.
The problem posed by lead service lines is likely underestimated in Wisconsin, where census figures show about 27 percent of homes were built before 1950 and 63 percent before 1980.
Required pipe replacements can boost danger
When a utility is not in compliance with the federal law and corrosion control is ineffective or rejected, it must replace 7 percent of the lead service lines that it owns. Additional replacements are required every year until the utility comes back into compliance.
The utility-owned portion of the service line typically runs from the water main to the curb stop, while the section between the curb stop and the house is usually privately owned.
However, replacing only the utility-owned portion of the pipe, a so-called partial replacement, can have severe unintended consequences: it may increase, rather than decrease, lead levels in consumers’ tap water.
Several factors can cause these lead spikes. One of them is the physical shaking of the pipes during replacement work, which can knock off the lead inside. Del Toral recounted one case in Chicago in which sediment measuring 125,000 ppb of lead came off a pipe.
“That would pass straight through a kitchen aerator and would put an infant or child in the hospital immediately, if not worse,” he said.
Lead levels in tap water may also increase after partial replacements due to a chemical phenomenon called galvanic corrosion.
“When old lead pipe is connected to a new copper pipe, the contact of the two metals creates a battery effect that activates lead, so that it enters the water at an accelerated rate,” said Yanna Lambrinidou, one of Edwards’ colleagues at Virginia Tech University.
In 2012, a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found high blood lead levels biedamong children whose homes had undergone partial pipe replacement. The researchers concluded that “the practice of partially replacing lead service lines as a method to comply (with the Lead and Copper Rule) should be reconsidered.”
Water main repairs can also cause a physical disturbance of lead service lines, resulting in the same risk of lead scale particles being released into the water. Milwaukee has hundreds of water main breaks a year.
“The water main work is the primary disturbance of the lead lines. That is going on, unregulated, on a daily basis in all major water systems in the country,” Del Toral said. “That’s a very big concern.”
Paul Biedrzycki, director of environmental health for the city of Milwaukee, shared Del Toral’s concern. He said such work poses “a very real public health threat.”
Milwaukee Water Works spokeswoman Sandra Rusch Walton countered that the city takes precautions against lead when it repairs broken water mains by flushing the line and asking homeowners to do the same.
Cantor said that may not always have the desired effect since flushing sometimes “riles up pipe wall debris” and “makes matters worse.”
Because of concerns that water main replacement work could cause lead levels to rise, Milwaukee officials in January informed state agencies that the city is temporarily halting planned work on five miles of water mains serving about 500 homes.
New regulations years away, public on its own
A quick fix of the nation’s lead pipe problem is unlikely. Lambrinidou was part of an EPA-convened working group tasked with proposing changes to the Lead and Copper Rule. The group released its final report in August. Lambrinidou estimates it will take at least another five to seven years before any revisions go into effect.
One of the group’s major recommendations: requiring water utilities to pursue full replacement of all lead service lines in collaboration with customers.
Edwards said until all lead pipes in the water infrastructure system are safely replaced, consumers are largely on their own when it comes to protecting their families from lead.
“If we don’t make a decision right now to get these lead pipes out of the ground, when are they going to be removed?” he asked. “They just pose an unreasonable health risk to future generations.”
The above story is part of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s ongoing Water Watch Wisconsin project, which examines state water quality and supply issues.