A recent study suggests that roughly 412,000 deaths in the U.S. every year can be attributed to lead exposure. Until the 1970s, lead use was widespread in pipes, paint, cosmetics, ceramics and other consumer products. Although the government banned any new use of lead-containing paint or piping with the Safe Drinking Water Act 35 years ago, between six and ten million homes, schools and businesses still receive their water from lead service lines. In an address to the AFL-CIO this past December, Vice President Kamala Harris announced the administration’s goal to replace all lead pipes and service lines in the country – using union labor – over the next ten years.
“Knowing what we know about the dangers of lead, this is a much needed investment to modernize our water infrastructure,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “LIUNA is proud to join the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to replace these hazardous lead pipes and make safe drinking water accessible to all American families.”
Lead is a neurotoxin that can damage the brain and kidneys and interfere with red blood cells, which transport oxygen throughout the body. While lead exposure is unsafe for everyone, the effects are especially detrimental to children, who can experience developmental delays, damage to the brain and nervous system and problems with learning, behavior, hearing and speech. Current EPA and CDC standards allow up to 15 micrograms of lead per liter in the public water supply and up to five micrograms of lead per deciliter in blood for adults and children. However, scientists have concluded there is actually no safe level of lead at all. Even modest amounts of lead in the blood can have negative health impacts.
Despite this knowledge and current federal regulations, lead continues to pervade our water supply nationwide. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that from 2018 to 2020, more than 61 million people consumed water with lead levels that exceeded the federal threshold. This is especially true in low-income communities and communities of color. Black children living at or below poverty level are four times more likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Environmental advocacy groups argue that current federal standards have failed to protect the public from the toxin, and the Biden-Harris administration agrees it’s time for change.
“There is no reason in the 21st century for why people are still exposed to this substance that was poisoning people back in the 18th century,” Vice President Harris said.
Fixing the Lead Problem
The Biden-Harris Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan falls under the bipartisan infrastructure bill and will allocate $15 billion to states, territories and tribes to complete this task with an ambitious ten-year deadline. To start, $2.9 billion will be distributed to local governments in 2022. Third-party experts warn this amount will not be enough, however. The most conservative estimates are that up to $60 billion will be required. To bridge the gap, Congress is considering a second budget bill that includes another $10 billion.
One major concern is that pipe remediation is expensive. In cities like Milwaukee that have already started the process, the major roadblock thus far has been a lack of funding. And this is especially true for poorer communities where lead pipes are particularly common. Newburgh, New York, for example, has been facing a lead problem in its water supply for decades. The small, historic community last received funding from the government in 2016 when lead levels spiked far above federal standards. They were able to replace 95 service lines before running out of funding, but an additional 2,900 lead pipes remain underground today.
Another lesson cities with water crises have taught us is that pipe infrastructure isn’t easy to navigate. Flint, Michigan has inspected thousands of pipes since 2016 and reported the process has been extremely complicated. Aside from the strenuous physical aspect of digging through the ground between obstacles like gas lines and tree roots, information on whether current pipes are lead, copper or a mix has been unclear. In many cities like Flint, water departments have incomplete or outdated records to sort through.
This initiative is a huge step in the right direction to clean up the nation’s water supply. By providing communities with the funding necessary and partnering with labor unions like LIUNA, whose members are extremely skilled at lead remediation and pipe replacement, the administration hopes to accelerate the project’s progress. Aside from improving the health of millions of families, this plan will also bolster the economy with thousands of good-paying, safe union jobs that put LIUNA members to work.
This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix a problem that has afflicted our country for over a century. Investing in our aging infrastructure will improve public health outcomes, create more jobs for working class families and address long-standing environmental injustices.