American City & County

Nearly 1,400 American water systems test above the federal lead standard, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As the nationwide consciousness for lead poisoning continues to develop, local entities with aging water lines may become targets for litigation, as Flint, Mich. has seen. The cost of replacing or even maintaining aging pipe systems is staggering. An estimated $1 trillion dollars will be required to replace the nation’s pipes and other infrastructure, and it will cost approximately $384 billion over the next twenty years to simply maintain what exists. While there are no easy solutions, there are steps that cities and counties can take to reduce the risks of exposure to the public, to reduce costs and to avoid liability.

When and Why Lead Pipes Can Become a Problem

The 1986 and 1996 amendments to the Safe Water Drinking Act and the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule reduced exposures to lead in drinking water. However, lead can still enter drinking water when service pipes containing lead corrode. Chlorine can cause pipe corrosion, as can water with high acidity or low mineral content. The amount of lead that leaches into drinking water may also be affected by the temperature of the water, the amount of pipe wear, how long water stays in pipes and the presence of protective scales or coatings inside pipes. Lead exposure occurs when lead is ingested in water. Lead entering the respiratory and digestive systems is released to the blood and can accumulate in the bones.

Lead can affect different populations differently. For example, the physical and behavioral effects of lead generally occur at lower exposure levels in children, especially children with nutritional deficiencies, than in adults. Lead exposure at certain levels has been linked to various conditions including neurological problems.

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