Article by Mike Habberfield PhD, Geography

Lead in the water: Following up

In No Boundaries Issue 2, we discussed the need for impoverished communities to swap pop and juice for water, but also highlighted the steps they should take to make sure lead levels are OK before doing so. We’re always looking for opportunities to follow up on the topics we cover, and now we can do just that. On Point, a nationally-syndicated production from WBUR in Boston, will often discuss issues of national prominence. This particular episode of On Point talked about lead in water from Flint to Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo, NY.

You can listen to the entire episode here:

Brief Synopsis of the program

The guest, Michael Pell, was essentially praising the initiative Buffalo has taken regarding the lead issue. Some zip codes in Buffalo have 40% of children ages 0-6 with “elevated” lead levels. Multiple guests stress that, despite the EPA threshold, no lead level is safe for children. Here’s more information on those measurements themselves. 

Buffalo: has invested millions in lead abatement, testing, and even special education programs for children after documented lead exposure. Unlike other municipalities, they are not ignoring the problem or shying away from facing up to it. Other municipalities are shell-shocked and paralyzed with inaction. Not Buffalo apparently. PUSH Buffalo is a non-profit providing lead-free housing for low income residents. Erie County Health Department has also issued warnings about other lead exposure risks, such as certain spices (e.g. turmeric from south Asia).

In order to solve this problem, there is a big emphasis on the need for the public to get engaged and involved in local politics and non-profits. Green and Healthy Homes Initiative is a big one nationally.

Pittsburgh: overall decrease in lead levels in children recently (timeframe not specified in program), but there was a recent uptick in lead levels in the water supply.  They are now giving out free water testing kits (something Erie County also offers). They changed their corrosion control chemical, but it is unknown if this was the cause of the uptick in lead levels in water. Either way, Pittsburgh is now legally mandated to begin replacing their lead service lines (~7% per year).  Under Pennsylvania state law, they are only able to replace the public service lines, not any lines on private property. This is a problem because (a) lead pipes within homes of course still pose a risk, and (b) changing only some of the pipes in the system can actually cause more lead to enter the water, via disturbance/dislodging at the connections between the service lines being replaced and the remaining lead pipes. They are trying to change the laws to allow the city to also replace the private lead pipes (presumably some subsidized funding for certain portions of the city, or low-incomes homeowners). They are also looking to restructure the Water Authority toward a public-private partnership, in order to allow it to take on more debt in order to finance these replacements.

(Related, there is a major emphasis from everyone that no amount of lead pipe in the system should be considered safe. Even if multiple water tests show no/low lead levels, if lead pipes still exist, there is always the risk that large pieces will eventually become dislodged.)

Baltimore: they have seen a 98%(!) drop in lead poisoning in children over the last 12 years. For Baltimore, however, it was not the water that was the concern. They apparently don’t have (any) lead pipes. Rather, it’s lead in paint and soil that had been the problem. They have mitigated those problems through extremely aggressive enforcement of regulations, including requiring landlords to safely replace lead paint (Something Buffalo is still struggling with between city and county).

Stay tuned for more. Like many of the issues No Boundaries covers, lead poisoning – no matter where in the city or region – is an issue that affects us all.