An Added Benefit Of Replacing Lead Pipes: Curbing Water Leaks

(Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)TNS

We all know that lead is harmful. It damages our brain, kidneys and many organs. Lead exposure harms not only individuals, especially children, but entire societies, for example by contributing to increased crime. But recent research has shown that lead is even worse for human health than previously thought.

It is well known that lead exposure is linked to high blood pressure. However, a study published in October in The Lancet goes much further and links lead exposure to cardiovascular disease in other ways, such as hardening of the arteries. According to this new calculation, lead exposure caused the deaths of 5.5 million adults around the world via cardiovascular disease in 2019. This whopping number is six times higher than a previous one.

In other words, according to this estimate, far more people die from lead than from respiratory diseases.

The Lancet study finds that 90% of deaths from lead exposure related to cardiovascular disease occur in people in low- and middle-income countries. Among high-income countries, the U.S. has already cracked down on lead in gasoline and paint. But as the recent lead-containing applesauce packet scandal shows, there is still lead in the USA

One of the main culprits of lead in drinking water is basic infrastructure, particularly lead pipes, especially in older homes and cities. While places like Flint represent extreme cases, pipes in cities across the country were constructed of lead. It was cheap, malleable and soon ubiquitous.

In November, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed removing nearly all lead pipes within a decade and reducing the amount of lead allowed in drinking water from 15 to 10 parts per billion. This would be a massive undertaking involving about 9 million pipes and a price tag of $20 billion to $30 billion over 10 years.

However, the costs would be outweighed by the benefits. While the gains in life and health are most important, the associated economic benefits are expected to be significant. The EPA estimates that this amounts to at least $9.8 billion per year, but that may be a significantly underestimated estimate.

2016 in Flint, Michigan to test her blood lead levels. (Photo by Brittany Greeson)The Washington Post via Getty Images

A less often discussed benefit of replacing lead pipes is that it also makes water systems more efficient, as the Tokyo experience demonstrated. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is proud that the city has one of the lowest water leakage rates in the world at around 3%. This is a dramatic decline from over 20% about 60 years ago. The success in Tokyo led to similar projects in Seoul and Taipei.

In context, 3% is a surprisingly low figure. Water leak rates are around 20% in the UK and can rise to a staggering 50% or more in the US (and that doesn’t even take into account the many utilities that don’t collect this information).

Leaking pipes are clearly wasteful and costly. For example, in 2021, nearly a third of Atlanta’s water did not reach intended users, ultimately costing nearly $3 million.

And there are also health risks beyond lead materials. Leaks also cause pollutants to get into the drinking water.

How was Tokyo able to reduce its water leaks so significantly? Of course there wasn’t just one measure. The Bureau of Waterworks strives to repair surface leaks the same day they are discovered, even if this must be done at night. Early repair will help prevent the problem from getting worse. Finding leaks can be difficult. That’s why the office has invested in a range of leak detection equipment and continued research into innovations to detect elusive leaks, such as helium gas injection.

Historical Museum of the WaterworksChristine Ro

However, another key element was replacing the lead pipes. According to a spokesman for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, lead corrodes more easily than stainless steel and “is susceptible to external influences,” making lead pipes susceptible to leaks. The Tokyo government began eliminating lead pipes in 1980 and formed a committee in 1999 to develop a plan for more active lead pipe removal. Transitioning to corrugated stainless steel pipe had several benefits, including reduction in leaks and improved earthquake resistance (which was important since earthquakes were a major factor in water loss in the region).

While many other wealthy countries have also moved away from lead pipes in new construction, they have not been as aggressive in tearing down old lead pipes. Taiwan has only partially replaced lead service lines, but partially replaced pipes can actually release more lead than undisturbed pipes. And because lead pipes have a long lifespan, they are still far too common in countries like the United States

Of course, Japan’s water infrastructure is not perfect. There is a serious problem of aging pipes across the country. In Tokyo, the removal of lead pipes on private property remains an ongoing challenge, such as obtaining permission to carry out work, despite plans to remove lead pipes on private property by 2007. As of March 31, 2023, the authorities are ready to do this. We know that there are still 32,000 lead pipes. They are working to address these as part of planned water leak investigations.

Replacing all lead pipes is a large, expensive project that can take decades. And it’s not enough to stop water leaks alone, which requires a concerted strategy of data collection, leak detection and maintenance.

But the experience in Tokyo suggests that replacing lead pipes also pays off in often overlooked ways. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government states: “We are concerned about the impact of lead pipes on the human body and will continue to work to remove them, as replacing lead pipes with stainless steel helps reduce waste costs from water leaks.”

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I’ve written for many publications whose titles are prefixed with “the” as if they were early 2000s indie rock bands: BBC, Atlantic, New York Times, etc. I’m always interested to hear about interesting developments. associated innovations.

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