Getting the Lead Out



Testing for lead


The metal that fueled the Industrial Revolution remains a danger to millions.


Lead can be found everywhere. For decades, it was used in house paints to make them stronger. It was added to gasoline to prevent engine knocking. It was used in solder to seal cans of food, and it was used in the pipes that carried water into homes across the country.

Now all that lead is still finding its way into the bloodstreams of young children. There is no safe level of lead in a child’s blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even small amounts can lower their IQs, their ability to pay attention and their academic achievement. And the effects of lead exposure are irreversible.

More than 4 million children live in homes with some kind of lead hazard. The CDC estimates that 535,000 children between the ages of 1 and 5 years have elevated lead levels in their blood. That’s far fewer than in the past, but still too many.

In 1978, nearly 14 million children had elevated blood lead levels, according to the CDC. The federal government’s ban on lead in gasoline, pipes and food cans, along with aggressive state efforts to control lead in paint, decreased kids’ exposure risks. But inattention to the threat lead poses can put whole communities of children in danger.

Just ask parents in Flint, Michigan.

The Flint Crisis

A Rust Belt city of 100,000, where a third of the population lives below the federal poverty line, Flint was hit hard by the loss of auto industry jobs. Its fiscal health deteriorated to the point that it was declared to be in a state of financial emergency in 2011. The governor, Rick Snyder (R), appointed an emergency financial manager who recommended that, instead of paying Detroit to provide it with drinking water, as Flint had done for many years, the city could save money by providing that service for itself. Detroit then canceled its water-services contract with Flint, leaving the city in a bind.

With no water flowing from the Motor City, Flint’s emergency manager and the city council decided to use a backup treatment system that drew water from the Flint River. Residents immediately complained that their water tasted bad, smelled horrible and looked unfit to drink.

But it took 18 months—and a report from local pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha that blood lead levels were rising in her young patients who were drinking Flint River water—for the Genesee County Health Department to issue an emergency health declaration regarding the water.

“We were assured by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that the water was safe to drink, but we couldn’t ignore the facts,” says Mark Valacak, the county’s health officer. “We went out on a limb by issuing a public health emergency about lead in the drinking water from the Flint River.”

The lead was leaching into the water from aging pipelines, both public and private. The city had failed to add an anti-corrosive agent to the water that would have kept lead levels down. As the lead levels in the water rose, so did the lead levels in the blood of young children.

The county advised residents to filter their tap water or use bottled water for drinking. The health department provided water filters to all residents. The city received federal funding to replace lead pipes and galvanized steel water service lines. And a new regional pipeline will draw water from Lake Huron instead of the Flint River.

That’s all good. But it’s too late for the children of Flint.

Federal Perspective

Under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency  sets the standard for lead in drinking water. It also defines the conditions under which a municipal water system must test for lead. The current standard is 15 parts per billion, which is the lowest achievable level for most water systems if they use the anti-corrosive agent. The goal for each water system is 0 parts per billion, but achieving that standard is difficult.

The EPA recently unveiled several plans to help states address drinking water safety. In November last year, for example, the agency released the National Drinking Water Action Plan, calling for collaboration among all levels of government, utilities, community organizations and other stakeholders to increase the safety and reliability of drinking water. The plan has six priority areas, one of which is revising the federal rule on lead to include best practices on lead service line replacement and updated guidance on testing for lead in drinking water at schools.

The federal Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act offers low-interest-rate financing for qualified water and wastewater infrastructure projects. Eligible projects include drinking water treatment and distribution and wastewater conveyance and treatment, among others.

State Solutions

Despite Flint’s special circumstances, the city is hardly alone. More than 2,000 water systems nationwide have lead levels in excess of EPA recommendations; 600 have lead levels as high as Flint’s during the height of its crisis.

Legislatures often struggle with the role they should play in drinking-water oversight. With the Flint crisis playing out as a worst-case scenario, the Michigan Legislature formed a committee to evaluate the issue and propose actions to help prevent a future crisis.

 In January, Michigan lawmakers passed the first piece of legislation stemming from the crisis. The new law requires cities to warn residents of dangerous lead levels in drinking water within three days of being notified of the contamination.

Nationwide, lawmakers considered hundreds of bills related to water quality and infrastructure in 2016. The variety of approaches reflects the ways water supplies and demands vary by state.

• A New York bill would establish the Clean Water/Clean Air/Green Jobs Bond Act of 2016. The bond totals $5 billion, $2 billion of which would be allocated for water infrastructure projects.

• A 2016 Pennsylvania law makes $22 million available for grants or reimbursement for water and sewer projects. The amount reflects a $19 million increase over the previous year.

• Tennessee passed a law in 2015 authorizing the use of green infrastructure in areas that have combined sanitary sewage and stormwater systems. The objective is to capture water before it enters the combined sewer system, thus alleviating pressure on overtaxed systems.

Could Crisis Strike Again?

“Flint could happen anywhere they fail to maintain the drinking water infrastructure,” says former Michigan Representative Chris Kolb (D), who helped write the governor’s report on the crisis.

Failures in water infrastructure, whether related to aging pipes or contaminated sources—or both in Flint’s case—are costly and can have long-term public health effects. But, with a renewed emphasis on infrastructure at the federal level, and new funding through such federal programs as the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, states can take steps not only to prevent water crises, but also to plan for potential shifts in future supplies and demands.

Doug Farquhar directs the Environmental Health Program at NCSL.

Sidebar: Who’s at Risk?

Children at higher risk for lead exposure are:

•    Members of racial-ethnic minority groups,

•    Recent immigrants,

•    Living in older, poorly maintained rental properties, or

•    Living with parents who are exposed to lead at work.

Membership in one of these groups does not predict risk in every community.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Sidebar: Where Does Lead Hide?

Tainted drinking water is just one source of lead. Most kids get lead poisoning from older paint in their homes. When old paint cracks and peels, it makes lead dust, which cannot be seen and can easily get on children’s hands and toys. Lead can also be found in:

•    Some imported pottery, including some traditional glazed terra cotta (clay) dishware from Mexico, and some highly decorated traditional dishes from China.

•    Imported vinyl (plastic) miniblinds made before 1996.

•    Certain imported consumer products, such as some candies from Mexico containing chili powder and tamarind; eye cosmetics containing powders such as kohl, kajal, al-kahal, surma, tiro, tozali and kwalli; and some toys made with lead paint.

•    Some folk remedies such as greta and azarcon (also known as alarcon, coral, luiga, maria luisa or rueda), which are traditional medicinal powders used in some Hispanic communities for upset stomach, constipation, diarrhea and vomiting; and for teething babies.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Sidebar: Did You Know?

•    The EPA estimates there are about 240,000 water-main breaks annually, causing a loss of between 14 percent and 18 percent of treated water.

•    In Philadelphia, half the water mains were installed before 1930. Some pipes still in use today were installed before the Civil War.

•    The American Water Works Association estimates the repair and replacement of old water pipes could cost more than $1 trillion over the next 20 years.

•    The EPA estimates the cost to maintain and upgrade water systems is $91 billion annually; states currently spend $33 billion, collectively.

Sources: NCSL; Circle of Blue

Additional Resources

NCSL Resources