As soon as he heard that President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill would allocate more than $4 billion to replace lead-water pipes in the country, Joseph Lanzafame, New London’s director of public utilities, knew two things:
First, no matter how much money Washington would spend on the company, it wouldn’t be enough.
And second, Lanzafame knew he wanted New London to be first on the state’s priority list for funding. “If we get out before then,” he said, “we’ll be more likely to get additional subsidies … and we’ll help set the standard for the state.”
Over the past two years, New London has aggressively inventoried its pipes, the first step in the replacement process. Lanzafame has pored over historical records, hired predictive model engineers and drilled exploratory “test pits” across the city to determine how many of its public water pipes are made of lead.
“We have a significant portion out there,” he said. Last week’s estimate: More than a third of New London’s 6,500 service lines are leaded.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, between 6 and 10 million lead water pipes are in use today, most commonly in older cities and in homes built before 1986. Lead pipes were used in the decades following the Civil War through the 1940s, and many were never replaced.
Although lead paint and lead-containing dust and soil cause most cases of lead poisoning in the country, particularly among babies and young children, 20 percent of people are exposed to the highly toxic metal through drinking water, according to the EPA.
Connecticut is scheduled to get about $30 million over the next five years through the bipartisan infrastructure bill to find lead pipes and replace them with copper ones, Lori Mathieu, director of public health for the State Department’s drinking water division, told The Health.
Although Lanzafame is right that the federal money doesn’t come close to covering the cost of replacing the pipes, Mathieu is effusive about the funding. “We’ve never seen so much money,” she said. “It’s very exciting. It’s historic.”
Lead pipes are the pipes that connect houses, residences, and businesses to water pipes that run in the middle of streets. The public side of the service line runs from the water line to a shut-off valve or curb at the property line, while the customer side runs from the shut-off valve to the indoor plumbing of a home or business.
Once test pits are drilled at the point where the two sections meet, engineers can determine if one or both parts of the water supply line are made of lead. To avoid having to dig up every water pipe in a community, engineering firms specializing in statistical predictive modeling are hired. The cost of that would be “astronomical” even in a small town like New London, Lanzafame said.
For example, he estimated the total project cost for New London over the next five years at $40 million, although it could be lower with federal grants or capital decree loans.
Problems caused by lead piping were last in the public eye during the 2014 water crisis in Flint, Michigan, when the water was untreated. The caustic water running through lead pipes caused health problems throughout Flint and resulted in thousands of children under the age of 6 registering high levels of lead in their blood.
The Infrastructure Act stipulates that “deprived” areas be prioritized for lead line replacement. The government’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI), developed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, uses census data such as socioeconomic level, housing conditions, access to transportation, and racial and ethnic minority status to identify census areas , for which more resources are needed to thrive.
However, Lanzafame said: “The SVI has nothing to do with the statistical model. The statistical model doesn’t care about color, race or economic situation, it just says lead line or no lead line.” As it continues to process information on the locations of top service lines, the city will apply the Social Vulnerability Index to the data, he said . “So people who happen to live in areas with higher SVI will have their lines replaced first,” he said.
poison in the house
Not surprisingly, many areas with high SVI rankings also have large numbers of lead-poisoned children. The CDC emphasizes that any amount of the heavy metal is unsafe and now defines lead poisoning as 3.5 micrograms per deciliter of lead or more in the bloodstream. Prior to May 2021, the CDC benchmark for lead poisoning was 5 micrograms per deciliter.
In Connecticut, 3,000 children under the age of 6 — nearly 5 percent of children in that age group — were reported poisoned with lead in 2020, the most recent year for which the state’s DPH reports figures. More than a third of these children lived in Connecticut’s poorest cities: New Haven had 376 poisoned children; Bridgeport had 298; Waterbury, 252; and Hartford, 171. That year, 58 children were poisoned in New London. That was 12 percent of all the city’s children under the age of 6, one of the highest percentages in the state.
In 2020, using the CDC’s higher criterion for lead poisoning of 5 micrograms per deciliter, the state reported the number of children poisoned with lead as a little over 1,000. The new, stricter criterion of 3.5 micrograms triples the number of poisoned children to 3,000 this year.
Babies and young children can be exposed to the heavy metal in vitro or when drinking lead-contaminated water.
Before its use was banned in 1978, lead was added to both interior and exterior paints to increase its durability, despite a general knowledge of its dangers. Even if painted over, it can cause problems as it will inevitably degrade.
Young children are particularly vulnerable to the dangers during these critical developmental years. Exploring hand-to-mouth, they’re more likely to pick up flaking paint shavings or lead-laden paint dust created by the opening and closing of doors and windows in older homes, sanding away the paint. Soil near the base of older, dilapidated buildings is also often contaminated.
The CDC warns that even small amounts of the toxin ingested by children can cause “brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth and development, learning and behavioral problems, and hearing and speech problems,” although these may not show up for years.
Adults are also susceptible to the toxin. Higher lead levels can lead to heart and kidney problems, high blood pressure, and fertility problems.
View of Newark
Earlier this year, as the state prepared for its flagship utility project, DPH’s Mathieu invited Kareem Adeem, director of the Water and Sanitation Department in New Jersey’s largest city, to present to Connecticut Water District officials.
When Adeem was appointed to his position in 2020, he was quoted as saying, “We’re doing something no city in the country has done.” After several years of reports of dangerously high levels of lead in drinking water, Newark embarked on an intensive replacement program lead water pipes. In less than three years, it has replaced more than 23,000 lead lines.
In doing so, Newark became a role model, not only because it worked quickly, but also because it involved its residents in the project. Perhaps most notable is the website Newark created, which is packed with information about why the project was created, announcing public meetings, explaining the health effects of lead, where to buy free water filters and water sampling kits, and dates and locations work.
After studying results from 150 test pits, Lanzafame said the city is close to bidding on its project. But first he has to find out whether the city is receiving loans or, even better, subsidies.
“The good news,” he said, “is that the federal and state governments understand that lead-line utilities are a very big problem, that they’re a very big cost, and there’s no way cities and towns could just do it.” without finding another source of funding or loans or anything to extend it.”
But with New London being number 1 on the list of priority projects for the state’s premier service line, he’s quite optimistic.
This story was published as part of a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (c-hit.org), a nonprofit news organization dedicated to health reporting.