Lead Service Line Replacement Programs Made More Complex by Incomplete Data

By: Bill Eller

We don’t know how many lead service lines remain in service, and estimates vary by the millions.

The American Water Works Association estimated that there are more than 6 million lead service lines across the country, but other sources put the number closer to 9 million. Those states with the estimated greatest numbers of lead service lines in service tend to be in the Rust Belt states – Illinois had 730,000; Ohio had 650,00 and Michigan had 460,000. Because we don’t know where lead water lines may be, we could be testing in the wrong places, underreporting the levels of lead in our community’s water – which was exactly what happened in Flint, Michigan.

Many water utilities have incomplete or handwritten records of the service lines in their communities. In many cases, the material the service line was made of wasn’t even recorded, since the dangers of lead service lines were not fully understood. Many utilities don’t even have that much from the pre-computerized era. Although fully realizing where lead lines are located is important in the effort to remove them, most utilities simply don’t have the resources and funding to map out that infrastructure.

When utilities don’t know where lead service lines are, they can’t fully gauge how those lead lines are impacting the community. In Flint, of the 324 sample sites used to monitor lead, only six were positively identified as having lead service lines, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

There are no safe levels of lead exposure, and when children are exposed to even low levels of lead, it can damage the nervous system, cause learning disabilities and impaired hearing and can impact the form and function of blood cells. Adults with high blood pressure and kidney disease also are at higher risk when exposed to lead.

More than 40,000 children across 26 states had high lead levels in 2017, according to data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead service lines and plumbing fixtures are the top causes of lead exposure, with service lines typically being the most significant source of lead in drinking water. Lead service lines are primarily found in homes built before 1986.

Water corrosion can be a significant contributing factor to lead exposure, as was seen during the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. Water will leech more lead from pipes when it sits for a long time in the line, if the water is hot, if the pipe is worn and the acidity and minerals in the water. Corrosion control measures can divert some of the lead from flowing through the kitchen tap, and some filters can remove yet more, but only carbon filters certified for lead removal are suited for these purposes. Most ordinary filters, such as those built into refrigerators or in water pitchers, are not rated to remove lead from water. Additionally, most of those filters that remove lead must be replaced periodically, which can present an issue for low-income households.

The only way to completely remove lead from our water is to remove lead service lines, which is a difficult nut for water utilities to crack. At least a portion of those service lines remain on private property and are the responsibility of the homeowner to replace. If a water utility replaces their end of the line, the work can cause a spike in the amount of lead in the water, even if it is temporary, because the service line has been disturbed.

Because the service line is the homeowner’s responsibility, it opens an entirely new set of problems: the inability of most low-income households to replace their lead water service lines. In a Cincinnati study, analysts looked at homes built in 1939 or earlier. When the poverty rate in that neighborhood was above the city average, there was a 63 percent chance that the home had a lead service lines. In neighborhoods with homes of the same age, but a below average poverty rate, the chance of a home having lead service lines was only 30 percent.

In Washington, D.C., looking at 3,400 lead service lines replacements between 2009 and 2018, there was a stark contrast between the number of service lines replaced in wealthier neighborhoods such as Ward 3 and low-income neighborhoods such as Wards 7 and 8.

In studies comparing neighborhoods with median annual income levels of $76,000 and the lowest level of $15,000, replacements increased by more than 50 percent in wealthier communities. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has earmarked $15 billion dollars for lead service line replacement, and the Biden administration has urged states to prioritize allocating that money for underserved communities.

The EPA estimates the average cost of replacing a lead service line to be $4,700, meaning that replacing the estimated 6 to 10 million lead service lines currently in service will cost between $28 to $47 billion dollars. The bipartisan infrastructure bill will fall short, and more likely than not, those residents in low-income communities will be left behind once again. Water utilities are stretched thin. What can they do to help shield their residents from the cost of replacing lead lines?

A partnership with the NLC Service Line Warranty Program can not only help educate homeowners but offer them an optional service line warranty to protect them from the cost of replacing a water service line. The Program has a nationwide network of pre-vetted contractors and a U.S.-based call center open 24/7/365 to assist your residents.

To learn more about how we can help your community address lead water service lines, contact us.