New Yorkers in predominantly Hispanic or Latino neighborhoods are more likely to have lead pipes carrying water to their homes, according to new research out of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
The study, published Aug. 30 in the journal “Environmental Health Perspectives,” also found the lead lines are more common in areas with other types of lead risk, like from paint. That doesn’t mean residents are currently drinking contaminated water, though: New York City treats its water with chemicals that keep the lead in pipes from flaking off, ensuring that the city’s water is safe. But health researchers and advocates note that replacing the pipes is the only surefire way to keep the water supply lead-free for good.
“When you have a lead service line, any change in corrosion control can have an impact on the amount of lead in drinking water,” said Anne Nigra, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health. “Flint, Michigan, is an important example of what happens when corrosion control goes wrong.”
She and the other study authors said their findings could help New York officials identify and prioritize neighborhoods for lead pipe replacement. The federal government has promised $15 billion in funding for states to dig up pipes that contain the dangerous neurotoxin, which can cause brain damage in children; New York state got $115 million from that pot last year.
“That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s absolutely not — it’s a drop in the bucket,” Nigra said. All the service lines will need to be replaced eventually, she said, adding, “We want to see the communities that are most impacted by lead service lines get prioritized first.”
Public records say about 318,000 buildings in New York City are served by lead pipes, which were banned in the 1960s but remain in many older structures. Another 600,000 properties do not have reliable records as to what their service lines are made of. One recent report by the New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning estimated that as many as 1 in 5 New Yorkers get their water from lead service lines.
For the study, Nigra and her colleagues tallied up the number of lead service lines by census tract, then compared the proportions of lead pipes across tracts with different demographics.
The researchers also wanted to see if lead pipes co-occurred with other types of lead exposure, like paint or paint dust containing the heavy metal. So they created a “child lead exposure vulnerability index” — a number representing a whole cluster of risk factors, like poverty and dilapidated homes. Data collected by the city’s health department shows that the vast majority of kids with elevated levels of lead in their blood live in low-income neighborhoods.
The researchers found a link between the number of Latino residents in a neighborhood and the share of service lines made of lead. For every additional 20% Latino residents, the proportion of lead service lines increased by 15%.
They also found that lead service lines tended to co-occur with other sources of lead, like paint dust. Both sources are more common in older and dilapidated housing stock.
The findings track with city data on lead poisoning, which show that Asian, Black and Latino children make up more than four-fifths of kids under 6 with elevated blood lead levels.
“This study confirmed a lot of what we thought about lead pipes,” said Robert Hayes, director of the Albany-based nonprofit Environmental Advocates New York. “They are an environmental injustice.”
But the results are incomplete, said Nigra and Dr. Morri Markowitz, who directs the lead poisoning program at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore and wasn’t involved in the study. More than a quarter of the lead service lines in the city’s data are marked as “unknown,” meaning they could be made of lead or some other substance.
“That’s based on [historical] data,” Markowitz said of the pipe classifications. “How often is the data proven to be correct? How do you know without going in and digging them up?”
Data from poor neighborhoods may be especially inaccurate, Nigra said, because some of the information comes from observations by highly qualified technicians.
“Our hunch is that low-income neighborhoods might not be places where the service lines match what’s in the dataset,” she said. “Who’s likely to use licensed plumbers?”
The Lead Pipe Right to Know Act, which passed the state Senate and Assembly earlier this summer, may shed some light. It would require utility companies to take inventory of all their service lines and share that information with the public. The bill is yet to be delivered to Gov. Kathy Hochul for approval or veto.
Hayes said he hopes that the increased transparency will push lawmakers to pick up the pace on lead pipe replacement. He and other advocates are calling for all the service lines statewide to be dug up and replaced in the next decade.
“We have a chance to really be a national leader on this issue and prioritize getting lead pipes out of the ground as swiftly and equitably as possible, prioritizing the communities that have been most harmed by the lead poisoning crisis,” he said. “It is absolutely feasible, it is morally necessary, and now is the time to get it done.”