Research finds early exposure to lead pipes shortens lifespan

New research shows that early exposure to lead pipes can shorten an American’s life expectancy by an average of nearly three months.

These are the results of a paper co-authored by a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The findings are part of a broader body of research examining childhood conditions that can affect Americans’ life expectancy.

Jason Fletcher, a professor at the university’s La Follette School of Public Affairs, said researchers compared U.S. census records of men who lived in cities with lead pipes with those who lived in cities with lead-free ones in the early 20th century materials were used. Fletcher said they then linked those people’s names and addresses to their death certificates from 1975 to 2005. Fletcher said the newspaper did not study women because of difficulties in linking data due to name changes when women married.

The paper also compared census data with water systems used in 761 cities between 1900 and 1930.

“We’re comparing two children born around the same time but in different cities, one city used lead and another didn’t,” Fletcher said. “The children born in cities where lead was used live a few months shorter than children born in cities where lead was not used.”

Fletcher and co-author Hamid Noghanibehambari of Austin Peay State University found that exposure to lead pipes shortened a man’s life expectancy by an average of 2.7 months. Of the nearly 10 million people studied, the results account for more than 2 million years of life lost nationwide.

Tom Iglinski, an engineering technician with the City of Milwaukee, holds up a replaced lead service line on June 29, 2021. Isaac Wasserman/Wisconsin Watch

Research focuses on lead exposure in early childhood

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To better dissect the effects of exposure, researchers compared men who lived in lead-containing and non-lead-containing cities from in utero to age 12. Fletcher said this helps with men who are already old enough that lead is not a significant factor in their life expectancy.

Research has shown that lead exposure in early childhood can have long-term effects that can affect cognitive development and academic performance later in life.

Dr. Beth Neary is a retired pediatrician and co-president of the Wisconsin Environmental Health Network.

“We know that lead actually affects every single organ, but the one most affected is actually the brain. That’s where we see the most impact,” Neary said. “When someone is exposed, whether in utero or early life, we’ve seen the most impact on IQ (and) executive function, which is essentially the ability to concentrate – to pay attention .”

Fletcher said their results showed that children exposed to lead in the 1910s and 1920s did not attend school as long and were smaller.

“The men drafted in World War II are smaller if they were born in towns where there were lead pipes than those born in towns where there were other types of pipes,” Fletcher said.

Researchers studied altitude because it can strongly predict other health outcomes, including death. Studies have also shown that 90 percent of lead is stored in the bones, which can be released into the bloodstream with age as bone density decreases.

Lead exposure had a greater impact on people of color

The results also showed that the effects of lead exposure were 3.5 times greater among men of color, reducing their life expectancy by 9.6 months.

“We can say, on average, that lead had a greater impact on life expectancy among black and low-income children growing up in lower-income families,” Fletcher said.

He said one reason could be that lead had greater health impacts because of the racial discrimination and poverty that black people faced in the early 20th century. Fletcher said the disproportionate effects of lead exposure are still being felt in cities like Milwaukee. Black children under 6 are four times more likely to test positive for lead poisoning than white children, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

The researchers said the data they relied on largely underrepresented people of color. While the vast majority – 97 percent – of the records involved white men, Fletcher said the data set was still large enough to provide an accurate estimate of the impact on people of color. Meanwhile, men who lived in cities whose water systems were built with lead-free materials lived about 6.3 months longer on average.

An old lead pipe lies on asphaltA 1927 lead water service line lies on the surface of a residential street after it was removed in Denver. Brittany Peterson/AP Photo

Adding to the findings, the EPA is proposing to speed up the removal of lead pipes

The paper concluded that other exposure methods, such as workers introducing lead-contaminated dust or lead-based paint, were unlikely to contradict their findings. Neary said the paper adds to research linking lead exposure in early childhood to death later in life.

“It’s pretty clear that lead is known to be a harmful poison,” Neary said. “We had the Flint crisis, right? Over time, these pipes will become more and more broken, so it’s time to get rid of them.”

The paper’s findings come as the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a new rule that would speed up lead pipe replacements nationwide. The Biden administration proposes removing most pipes within 10 years and lowering limits for lead in drinking water. The effort to replace lead pipes is expected to cost billions of dollars each year.

Fletcher said he hopes the paper’s findings will help highlight the health benefits of eliminating the nation’s more than 9 million lead-containing service lines, which provide drinking water to more than 15 million people.

“We’re adding to that to say that there are even more benefits than we thought because of longevity,” Fletcher said, “for those who are born in places where there are now no lead pipes.”

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