Discover more from The Brockovich Report
Think Towns Like Flint Are The Only Ones With Lead Issues? Think Again.
Pipe Problems In The Big Apple: New Report Says One In Five New Yorkers May Be Drinking Lead-Contaminated Water.
Unfortunately, the story of lead-contaminated drinking water has not come to an end in our country.
On July 18, the New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning issued a report, No Excuses, NYC: Replace Lead Drinking Water Pipes Now, estimating that one in five New Yorkers, or 21 percent of the city’s residents, may be drinking water transported through lead service lines.
The coalition consists of advocates, doctors, and lawyers, who came together back in the 1980s to create and pass Local Law 1 of 2004 to prevent childhood lead poisoning by remediating lead paint hazards in homes.
But our lead problems have persisted.
Dozens of cities have been found to have dangerously elevated levels of lead in homes, schools, and daycare centers. In fact, new data, released by the state of California in May, showed high levels of lead in drinking water at a quarter of the childcare centers tested statewide. Only about half of California’s more than 14,000 childcare sites have returned results, but out of those, one in four tested positive for lead above the legal limit.
Service lines are pipes that connect residences to water mains in the street, and lead can leach from the pipes into the drinking water. We call this corrosion, and it can happen when temps rise, pipes get old, or even when water sits too long in pipes. Certain qualities of the water—for example, acidity and or minerals in the water—can also cause lead to dissolve or flake into the water.
In Flint, Michigan, the water did turn brown at many homes, but that’s not always the case with lead-contaminated water. It’s important to note that you can’t see, smell, or taste lead, so even water that runs clear can contain it.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that our country still has between 9.7 to 12.8 million lead service lines, while the U.S. EPA estimates that we have about 9.2 million lead service lines throughout the country.
New York State does not yet have a complete, reliable inventory of lead service lines, but the EPA estimates that there are at least 494,000 lead service lines in the state, putting New York State as one of the top six states with the most lead service lines.
Those service lines carry water to an estimated 1.8 million city residents, meaning more than 20 percent of residents across the five boroughs are potentially drinking water transported through lead pipes.
“New York City’s drinking water supply is the envy of many other cities,” said Joshua Klainberg, senior vice president for the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund in a statement. “Yet, for all of the money we have invested to protect our watershed, our return on investment is greatly diminished with each lead service line that remains in the ground. Our elected leaders must put New York City on a path to replacing all lead service lines quickly, efficiently, equitably, and transparently. We cannot afford excuses—we expect solutions.”
Why Lead is So Bad
Lead is a nervous-system toxin that according to our own regulatory agency (the EPA) has no safe level of exposure. Lead in drinking water can cause everything from stomach pains to permanent brain damage. Even low levels of exposure can cause serious, irreversible damage to the developing brains and nervous systems of babies and young children.
“Lead exposure from drinking water is often episodic,” the report explains. “It can be very low or zero one day, and extremely high the next day. Often, that is because small particles of lead known as ‘particulate lead’ flake off from the inside of the pipe and cause a major spike in lead exposure.”
What Comes Next For NYC
The report discusses the shortcomings of the federal Lead and Copper Rule, and how it has failed to protect New Yorkers from lead exposure. It also identifies funding sources to pay for lead service line replacement and examines Newark, New Jersey, as a case study for lead service line replacement.
Once again, this is an infrastructure issue. Even though New York City outlawed new installations of lead service lines in 1961, many of the predating lead service lines remain underground. It’s important to know the conditions of these older pipes as they can deteriorate.
The report used NYC Department of Environmental Protection, consumer, and voter database data to determine that in New York City:
Up to 41 percent of drinking water service lines are lead or possible lead service lines
As many as 902,974 households have lead or possible lead service lines
As many as 1,845,119 individuals, or 21 percent of the city’s population, live in a household with lead or possible lead service lines
The Port Richmond neighborhood in Staten Island has the highest lead/possible lead service lines (61 percent) in the entire city, while Fresh Meadows in Queens has the lowest rate (21 percent).
The report urges the New York City Council to pass a law requiring the replacement of all lead service lines in the city within 10 years, at no cost to the residents. Newark passed such a local law with great success, providing a great model.
Legislative Red Tape
The Bien administration has called for the removal of 100 percent of the lead service lines in the United States. In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that authorizes $45 billion in funding to remove lead pipes across the country, and requires funded water utilities to complete the removal within 10 years. The Senate passed a less ambitious bill but stronger legislation has been introduced. In March 2023, Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee introduced the Financing Lead Out of Water (FLOW) Act, bipartisan legislation, supported by Republicans and Democrats, to remove federal red tape to help more communities finance the removal of lead service lines. These provisions have yet to pass the full Congress.
Testing for Lead in Drinking Water
Some states and cities offer free water testing for lead; check with your local health department or water utility. You can also use an independent testing laboratory, such as Healthy Babies Bright Futures, which offers below-cost kits to community groups, or check the EPA website to find a list of certified labs that can perform the testing for a fee for a single lead test of about $50.
Be sure to collect multiple samples of your tap water and avoid turning on the water in your home for at least six hours prior to sampling. There may be varying instructions from your city or lab on how to collect the samples, but collecting this “pre-flush” sample is a must. This EPA guide offers more information about home water testing.
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