According to a report released last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council, up to 650,000 lead pipes are supplying water to Ohioans nationwide.
This makes Ohio the second worst state in the nation by the estimated number of lead pipes (technically known as leaded utilities) in the water system, behind just Illinois at 730,000.
“It’s important because it’s like drinking your water through a lead straw,” said Erik Olson, a senior strategic director for health at NRDC, in an interview.
Lead is a neurotoxin and there is no safe level of exposure. Children and young children are particularly susceptible to lead exposure, which has been linked to central nervous system damage, learning disabilities, hearing impairments, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.
Acid water sources corrode the pipes and add their lead to the water.
Clinical tests found at least 3,533 Ohio children with elevated blood values in 2019, according to state data.
There’s no surefire way to back up the NRDC’s estimate – Ohio doesn’t have a comprehensive estimate of the number of leading service lines in the system. The NRDC numbers come from a 2016 water industry self-assessment that auditors from the US Government Accountability Office consider low.
According to the report, between 9.7 million to 12.8 million lead pipes of water are believed to bring Americans’ homes across the country. That is 6.2 million known lead water pipes plus 3.5 million to 6.6 million connection pipes that are made of “unknown” material, but possibly made of lead.
The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio referred questions to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. OEPA spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer said the data were “informative”, but the agency could not verify their accuracy.
Griesmer said the agency is collecting data on lead service lines and is asking utilities to take stock of all lead pipes “that will need to be presented to us in the coming years.” She didn’t answer when asked for a more specific schedule.
It’s an expensive problem. A pipe is typically 15 to 20 feet long, according to Olson, but some can reach 50 feet.
According to Kristy Meyer, associate director of Freshwater Future, a cleaner advocate, each pipe costs between $ 2,400 and $ 7,100. Unless a utility company keeps careful records of pipe installation, these estimates do not take into account the cost of digging to determine if a utility line contains lead.
Freshwater Future, in a letter to lawmakers, requested that they take $ 1 billion from the US rescue plan of 2021, which allocated Ohio more than $ 5 billion, and use it to replace top service lines.
State lawmakers recently passed House Bill 168, which allocates $ 250 million to the Ohio Department of Development (not OEPA), among other distributions, to establish and administer a water and wastewater quality program. Cities and counties will receive funding for water and wastewater quality projects.
“This is a very good start, and we’re definitely excited to see the state show an interest,” said Tim Johnson, a political attorney with the Ohio Poverty Law Center.
Governor Mike DeWine’s “H2Ohio” project, a large-scale canal and water revitalization project, will allocate $ 725,000 to replace 175 senior service lines transporting water in Ohio daycare centers.
Meyer said the problem needs more urgent attention – lead poisoning is irreversible and people cannot make informed decisions unless they know if they are getting water through lead carriers.
“We have to work faster,” she said. “People drink, even if there is a small amount of lead in their water, they need to know about these things.”
More help could come from the federal level.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, now under President Joe Biden, is working to reverse a 1991 weakening of the agency’s lead and copper rule from the time of Donald Trump. The Trump Rule reduced the percentage of lead pipes that water systems must replace annually from 7% to 3%, according to Bloomberg Law. The new rule is set to go into effect in December, and the EPA is gathering public comments in the meantime.
Olson said the lead pipe issue underscores the urgency of the deliberations of Congress on a massive infrastructure package in the works and how it will spill over to public health.
The plan calls for a $ 45 billion investment for the issue.
There may be a sticker shock to the dollar numbers, but Meyer said you need to look at the bigger picture. Studies have linked lead exposure to learning disabilities and overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. The state of Michigan reached a $ 600 million settlement with the city of Flint last year, which resulted in the poisoning of thousands of adults and children by lead-contaminated water.
“When a child has lead, it’s not like they just go away,” she said.
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