Why don’t we know where all the lead pipes are?

By Sara Ganim

June 3, 2021

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Runtime: 00:14:41

Below is a transcript. We encourage you to listen to the episode. It was written to be heard, not to be read. 

Sara Ganim narration: Welcome back to Why Don’t We Know. I’m Sara Ganim.

President Biden: So today, I’m proposing a plan for the nation that rewards work, not just rewards wealth.

Sara Ganim narration: In April, President Joe Biden announced a really ambitious and far-reaching infrastructure plan for America.

President Biden: The American Jobs Plan will put plumbers and pipefitters to work replacing 100 percent of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines.

Sara Ganim narration: And part of that, is replacing every lead pipe in America – a badly needed upgrade that affects millions of American children every year. 

News report: We stay in New Jersey – work will begin today on the next phase of the sewer line replacement project in Newark.

News report: The cause of the dark water in St. Joseph seems to be a broken pipe in the aging system.

News report: “People don’t realize this: the extent of the problem in D.C. was about 20 to 30 times worse than Flint. More lead poisoning, more exposure of people.

News report: A class action lawsuit filed against the city of Chicago today over possible lead contamination in the water.

News report: This week, the state of Michigan announced a 600 million dollar settlement for the victims of the Flint water crisis.

Sara Ganim narration: Let me give you a little bit of background on why.

Lead drinking water pipes go all the way back to the Roman times, and even though we’ve known that lead is harmful for the better part of the century, powerful in the U.S. lobbying kept them around — and in some places, mandated they be installed — until the 1980s.

So, millions of Americans in thousands of American towns have them.

To mitigate the poison, we rely on a calcium called orthophosphate that coats the pipes and protects the lead from contaminating the water that’s flowing through them. 

Well, in theory, right? Because we’ve seen how that can fail. In the worst of circumstances, like Flint and Newark and Chicago and Washington D.C., kids are poisoned and communities financially ruined.

And then there are smaller cases that we never hear about but are still pose a health risk.

But despite those large-scale failures, despite those headlines, despite the fact that millions of people remain at risk, the U.S. government has been incredibly slow in dealing with this issue. 

So yeah, a plan to take out all the lead pipes is a really big deal.

But immediately, when I heard about this plan, I thought, man, they’re making it sound a little too easy. 

It’s not just the cost — in fact, it’s not really the cost at all. 

Towns that have removed their lead pipes have found it costs about five thousand dollars a house, which really isn’t bad. 

The problem is this: we don’t know where all the lead pipes are. 

Seven years ago, I was a reporter for CNN when I was sent to Flint, Michigan to cover the water crisis there. 

I actually knew nothing about water contamination before that story. But when I hit the ground, I was brought up to speed pretty quickly by experts who have been working on this for decades. 

One of them was Erik Olson.

Erik Olson: I’m Erik Olson. I’m with the Natural Resources Defense Council and I’ve been working on lead and drinking water for many years and on toxic chemicals.

Sara Ganim: And when you say many years, you’re being modest because it’s like many decades.

Erik Olson: Yeah, it is. (laughter) So I was engaged in the original lead and copper rule that was issued during the George HW Bush administration in 1991 which we challenged in court saying it was not protective of public health.

Sara Ganim narration: So I called Erik about this. 

Sara Ganim: That was 30 years ago.

Erik Olson: It was 30 years ago, yes.

Sara Ganim: And 30 years later are you feeling like you’re finally on the cusp of making progress? And I want to sort of like caveat that with, you and I have been talking about lead service lines and lead in water since Flint, which was 2014, when you thought you were on the cusp then of some real change, but that really didn’t happen. And so now seven years later, do you feel like this is the moment?

Erik Olson: I do you feel like this is unique. I think for the first time there’s serious discussion about investing real money, as in tens of billions of dollars, to actually pull out all the lead service lines across the country. And there hasn’t been a serious discussion of that before. So having the President of the United States repeatedly say, we need to address this problem. We need to really put money into it. That’s unprecedented in my career and I think should make a big difference.

Sara Ganim: Take us back in time to the history of lead pipes in this country and why they’re dangerous.

Erik Olson: Well, we’ve used lead pipes in this country for over a hundred years. In fact, the word plumbing comes from the Latin word for lead. We’ve known really since at least the 1800s, and probably before then, that it wasn’t a great idea to be using lead in many cases for drinking water. And now because they were so widespread, we’ve got six to 10 million of these lead service lines, potentially even more, across the United States.

Sara Ganim narration: Six to ten million lead service lines. 

Two things I want to point out about what he just said. One is this: If you thought this was just a flint problem, well, that number should change your mind.

In fact, an NRDC  study found that 60 million Americans have elevated levels of lead in their water.

And second, and even more important, there’s a huge difference between six and ten million. 

Four million to be exact.

Erik Olson: Well, in so many cases, we don’t know exactly where the lead service lines are. So yes, we do know that there are millions of them, but, and we know that generally that some water systems used a lot of them during certain periods of time, but a lot of people have no idea whether they have a lead service line that’s serving their house. 

Sara Ganim narration: Here’s why: 

Erik Olson: I’ve talked to water systems that have installed lead service lines over more than a hundred year period, and some of their records go back to the late 1800s. They have, basically, shoe boxes or old boxes full of little cards that plumbers and some of their staff would have filed back in the 1800s, early 1900s, that may or may not be really accurate.

Sara Ganim narration: That’s what happened in Flint, when the state and federal government gave them the money to rip out and replace all of its lead service lines.

City officials pulled out these 3 by 5 notecards that were supposed to tell them where all the lead pipes were. 

But sometimes they’d go to an address and there actually weren’t lead pipes. 

And then worse, many homes had them, but there was no record of it.

Erik Olson: Well, the thing about Flint was we did learn a lot. There was an artificial intelligence based model that they ended up using in Flint that ended up being more than 90% accurate in identifying where the lead service lines were. 

So I think that’s going to have to happen across the country where we’re going to have to use sophisticated systems to use whatever data we have, like the age of the house, when the utility thinks they put in lead service lines, what the historical records say, and you throw that all into a box basically, and outcomes an estimate of how likely it is that a specific line is lead.

Sara Ganim: But sophisticated technology costs money.

Erik Olson: It does, although I will say that there’s some of these systems they’re talking about just making public access. So, I think that, especially with the amount of money that we’re talking about, if there truly is going to be $45 billion invested in this, some of that money needs to be put up front to make sure we’re identifying where the digging has to happen, and to really identify where the lead service lines are. It’s unacceptable to have literally tens of millions of people having no idea that they have lead contaminated drinking water, which is where we are now, and where we’ve been for decades. 

Sara Ganim: I saw one government website in the Northeast where it was suggested that if you’re curious about your service line, you should take a piece of metal and scrape a pipe in your yard and see if it turns silver. And if it turns silver, you have lead. And I really just, when I read that, I thought, man, like people are going to fall through the cracks. I mean, are you worried about that?

Erik Olson: Well, there are ways you can tell whether it’s likely you have a lead service line. So for example, if you go down into your basement where the pipe comes in from outside, that’s where you can actually scratch that pipe with a coin. If a magnet doesn’t stick to it, that means it’s not steel, and if you scratch it and you get a shiny metal color, it very well could be lead. It’s likely lead at that point. So that’ll tell you if the pipe coming your house is lead. Obviously there is some chance that part of that pipe might’ve been replaced, so you really need to do this whole combination of evaluation of what the historic records say.

Sometimes you have to do what’s called hydrovacing, which is basically shooting high pressure water in a small square in the ground and sucking up that water and then looking at the pipe down there, it costs a couple hundred bucks to do that, and you can figure out pretty quickly whether there’s lead pipe, where you’ve done that hydrovacing. So there are a variety of more sophisticated techniques we can use to try to figure out whether there’s a lead pipe in front of your house or not.

Sara Ganim narration: If it seems like a lot of this is being put on the homeowner, it’s because it is. 

Government attitude about this issue has historically been lax. Bury your head in the sand, kind of thinking.

Alex Stubblefield, a research assistant at NRDC, surveyed all 50 states and the District of Columbia to see if she could come up with a better number.

Alex Stubblefield: And the majority of states came back saying they weren’t even tracking how many lead service lines are in the state. We only got about 10 responses back, and one of those was the district of Columbia, and that’s with following up four or five times. And so that was disappointing.

Erik Olson: Yeah. I’ll say a few of the water systems have actually gone out and started to try to identify their lead service lines. So some of the water utilities themselves may have some of this data. They’re going to have a mix of ancient records and other information from when their crews went out and replaced water mains or whatever. So there’s some of that data that the utilities have, but it’s really hit or miss. And until we actually have a requirement to go out and do this, I’m concerned that a lot of people are not going to know that they have these lead lines and we’re just going to have really have to invest in identifying them and pulling them out.

Sara Ganim: This may be like a super obvious question, but if we’ve known that lead is dangerous in our drinking water for decades and decades, why don’t we know where the lead service lines are?

Erik Olson: Well, so the 1991 rule that EPA adopted, did require water systems to do a materials inventory, but a lot of the utilities, and frankly I think EPA, interpreted that to not require a full inventory of all their lead service lines. So basically it’s never been clearly required before. And because of that, most water systems have just done other things and just have not bothered to identify all their lead service lines, which is a real problem when we know that lead is so widespread.

Sara Ganim narration: Basically, the fact that we don’t know where the lead pipes are — that’s emblematic of the entire problem.

There’s been no political willpower to remove lead pipes and therefore remove lead from water.

There’s so little motivation that the government doesn’t even know where they are. Which to me, seems like a really big hurdle moving forward.

Erik Olson: Absolutely lack of political will has long been the biggest enemy here,

Sara Ganim: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it just seems to me like a government entity that’s not willing to document, not willing to know, like they don’t want to know where they are, kind of shows why we’re here in 2021 talking about this.

Erik Olson: Yeah. I think there’s some truth to that, that if you want to bury your head in the sand and not see the lead pipe next to your head, you can do that, right? 

The fact that people don’t know that they’re basically being poisoned by their water contributes to the fact that they’re not rising up and saying, “I’ve had it. I really want to fix this problem.”

This is Why Don’t We Know.

This Why Don’t We Know EXTRA was written and produced by me, Sara Ganim, with audio editing by Amy Fu, and music by Volodymyr Piddubnyk, Michael Vignola, and Marshall Usinger.

Additional reporting was done by Thomas Holton.

Frank LoMonte is the executive editor.

Why Don’t We Know is a production of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida. 

A special thanks to the Hearst Family Foundation for proving the grant money that supported this reporting.

For more information about this episode, visit www.whydontweknow.org