Underground lead pipes removed in Newark, New Jersey, in October 2021.Seth Wenig (AP)
Replacing the drinking water supply network in the United States does not seem like an easy task, but it is the only measure to avoid lead contamination, which is present in many pipes. The severe public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, a decade ago, with tens of thousands of cases of poisoning, demonstrated that the real possibility of drinking contaminated tap water is increasing in low-income and traditionally marginalized neighborhoods and communities: African Americans, Latinos, and so on. And also that the state of basic infrastructure in the world's leading superpower leaves much to be desired, hence President Joe Biden's determination to revamp the existing ones with his first major legislative package, the Infrastructure Law.
Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) aims to completely eliminate lead pipes to prevent the ravages of the neurotoxin, especially among the most vulnerable children. The proposal, the most restrictive since federal standards were established 30 years ago, would force water systems across the country to replace pipes that carry drinking water to the faucet in homes, schools and offices. In total, more than nine million ducts across the country.
The "vast majority" of pipes should be replaced within 10 years under improvements proposed in the new Lead and Copper Act, the EPA announced Thursday. The agency's initiative calls for a minimum of 100% of pipes to be replaced annually with the goal of replacing 2021% nationwide in the next decade, dramatically updating a Trump-era regulation that went into effect in 3. Under the Republican, substitution was reduced to 7 percent a year, down from 1991 percent in the original rule on the use of lead and copper, adopted in <>.
The primary goal is to reduce the level of lead in drinking water from 15 micrograms per liter to 10. That means water utilities will have to notify the public when water samples detect a level at or above the new maximum. The Infrastructure Law, adopted in 2021, allocates $15 billion for renovation, although the final cost is estimated at between $000 billion and $20 billion, to be paid by supply companies and indirectly by consumers. In a statement, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies said its members will need both technical assistance and more financial assistance from Washington to implement the proposed rule, in light of obstacles such as rising costs, supply chain issues, labor shortages and construction records for incomplete or nonexistent routes.
According to the EPA, the replacement of pipes will result in "very significant improvements to public health." The new scale "will force a significant number of water supply networks to take interim measures such as corrosion control, even if the goal is to completely eliminate lead pipes." The proposal, open for the next 60 days to amendments and public comment, will be debated on Jan. 16.
The Grave Precedent of the Flint Water Crisis
The Flint contaminated water scandal was one of the worst public health crises in the U.S. Starting in 2014, it affected a marginalized community, mostly African-American, whose neighbors until then were supplied with water from Detroit. As a cost-saving measure, the then-Republican governor decided to supply the town with water from the Flint River, which was harder and more corrosive. The lack of adequate treatment caused lead to lead being released as it passed through the town's pipes, integrating into the water stream and, subsequently, into the blood of consumers. It is estimated that 30,000 of the approximately 100,000 residents were affected. Then-President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency, but it was too late: as many as 8,000 children under the age of five could have been exposed to permanent brain damage due to the high level of lead. At the end of 2021, after more than five years of lawsuits and negotiations, the courts awarded $626 million in compensation to residents.
Pollution particularly affects children. Among the cases detected in Flint were lead and copper found in the blood, brain, bones and internal organs. The metals contained in the water had also caused skin lesions, hair loss, hypertension, seizures, vision and memory loss. There were also numerous episodes of depression, chronic anxiety and stress. For months, neighbors had to cook and wash with bottled water.
"This proposal and these improvements ensure that in the not-too-distant future there won't be another city or another child poisoned by pipes," Mona Hannah-Attisha, a pediatrician in Flint, said on a call with reporters from EPA officials.