The lead-pipe danger lurking underground

Households across the country may be at risk of drinking lead-tainted water as lead pipes age underground and municipalities struggle to balance high replacement costs with a slew of other urgent infrastructure projects.

Why it matters: Exposure to any amount of lead is highly dangerous, especially for children. The public health disasters in Flint and Newark have dominated headlines, but more than 6 million lead service pipes are buried beneath U.S. cities — and the Government Accountability Office believes that’s a low estimate.

  • Those lead pipes are being replaced at an average rate of 0.5% a year.
  • According to the nonprofit American Water Works Association (AWWA), upgrading and replacing all U.S. water systems would cost more than $1 trillion through 2035.
  • In Flint alone, replacing 10,000 lead service lines is expected to cost $80 million.

How it works: Water systems are able to chemically control the corrosion of lead pipes to prevent lead from seeping into tap water. But changes in water source or treatment can cause lead to spike.

  • In Flint, lead levels increased in 2014 when it switched its water source to the Flint River, which was not treated with the anti-corrosive orthophosphate.
  • In Newark, the city discovered this year that its anti-corrosion efforts weren’t working for one of it’s main water supplies. The city told about 15,000 households to drink only bottled water and handed out water filters, although the EPA warned they may not be working.
  • Another complication: Utilities monitor the quality of water when it leaves the treatment plant. But lead fittings and pipes can contaminate water between the plant and a resident’s faucet. So many communities are pushing for in-home testing to ensure lead levels are under federal limits.

Where it stands: The recent crises have generated enough public awareness about lead pipes that residents are pressuring utilities to replace lead lines.

  • Splitting the costs of replacements is tricky since lines are on both public and private land. Utilities and home owners don’t always see eye-to-eye on who pays for upgrades.
  • And utilities don’t always know where lead pipes are, leaving many to guess based on the age of a house.

The cost of replacing lead pipes typically ranges from $3,000 to $5,000, a cost that’s prohibitive for most low-income households. Rebates and tax hikes have been funding options. For example:

  • Madison, Wisconsin became the first major U.S. city to completely replace all lead service lines, offering rebates to residents to cover half the replacement cost.
  • Lansing, Michigan, replaced lines funded by water rate hikes.
  • The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority in 2016 launched a $100 million interest-free loan program to help towns in its service area replace lead service lines.

The bottom line: Water systems are just one part of the aging infrastructure puzzle that cities are trying to manage, upgrade and replace.

Lead, chloramines and drinking water safety

Conditions leading to widespread lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan are not unique to the troubled Rust Belt city. In recent decades, many cities have made the switch from chlorine to chloramine for water treatment; this can, without proper management, release toxic lead from old pipes directly into drinking water.

In the 1960s, people learned that the chlorine that we were adding to our tap water to protect us from waterborne pathogens was reacting with organic matter to produce a class of chemicals known as disinfection byproducts. These byproducts can cause cancer, miscarriages or other health effects. So water utilities spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to minimize the formation of disinfection byproducts while still protecting people from waterborne pathogens, and one of the solutions they found was replacing chlorine with a family of compounds known as chloramines. If you add a small amount of ammonia to the water when you add the chlorine, you create something called chloramines, which don’t react with water to produce disinfection byproducts. Starting in the 1980s and 1990s, many cities in the United States switched from chlorine to chloramines.

Chloramines are used in many cities around the country without incident, but under some conditions, switching from chlorine to chloramines can mobilize lead from lead-containing drinking-water pipes and solder in household plumbing. This was observed in Washington, D.C. about ten years ago, and led to a problem similar to what we saw in Flint recently. But these cases appear to be quite rare. The engineers who operate water systems are now aware of this phenomenon and have taken steps to prevent the mobilization of lead. It’s now one of the risks that people think about when they switch from chlorine to chloramines. Water engineers have a good understanding of the composition of the water and know how to manage the water to minimize the chance that lead would dissolve. They can add small amounts of a compound called polyphosphate, which can prevent the lead from dissolving. The way I understand it, the managers of the Flint water system didn’t take some of the normal steps to prevent the dissolution of the lead from the pipes.

EPA sets new Lead Standards

At a time when it is rolling back most environmental safety regulations, the Trump administration is tightening standards for lead dust on floors and window sills in homes and child-care centers.

The rule, announced June 21, is meant to reduce childhood exposure to lead, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, growth delays, and other problems at any level of exposure. First proposed in December 2018, the EPA’s final standard allows for 10 µg/ft2 (about 110 µg/m2) of lead dust on floors and 100 µg/ft2 (1,100 µg/m2) on window sills. The previous lead dust standard, updated in 2001, allowed 40 µg/ft2 (430 µg/m2) on floors and 250 µg/ft2 (2,700 µg/m2) on windows.

“Today’s final rule is the first time in nearly two decades EPA is issuing a stronger, more protective standard for lead dust in homes and child care facilities across the country,” EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. The rule becomes effective in 180 days. Earlier this month, EPA sent a newly proposed rule to limit lead and copper in drinking water to the White House for review before releasing it for public comment.

Bay Area Examines PCB Abatement Regulations for Building Demolition

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCB) demolition regulations are coming for the Bay Area. The Bay Area Stormwater Management Agencies Association (BASMAA) is currently working on regulations for abatement of PCBs on building demolition projects. PCBs exist in unhealthy quantities in the San Francisco Bay, and runoff from building demolition activities has been identified as a primary source.  The proposed regulations are designed to severely limit the quantity of PCBs entering the Bay’s water supply.

Effective July 1, 2019, every agency in seven counties surrounding the Bay will be required to implement and enforce PCB regulations as part of demolition permit applications. Currently, four PCB containing materials are targeted for abatement prior to demolition. These are caulks, adhesives/mastics, thermal (pipe) insulation, and fiberglass insulation. The regulation will apply to buildings built between 1950 and 1980; it will exclude wood frame and residential buildings. It is currently expected to follow the definition of the Contractors State License Board C-21 Demolition classification in applying the regulation.

The regulation is not intended to address disposal of PCB containing waste; demo of related material recycling; health and safety requirements; abatement procedures; certification of assessment contractor (lab) or abatement contractor; training; approved service providers. The regulation will provide guidance to cities and counties for implementation.

PCB-containing materials demolition is not new; recent notable projects that incorporated removal of PCBs prior to full demolition were Candlestick Park, and the Bay Bridge. However, at present the removal of PCB containing material as a hazardous substance is voluntary and not required. This will change.

Aero-Environmental learned that this initiative was originally intended to roll out Statewide; however due to time constraints it is limited at present to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Hawaii Becomes First State in the U.S. to Ban the Toxic Pesticide Chlorpyrifos


Tuesday Hawaii made history, as it became the first state in the U.S. to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a highly toxic neurotoxin that causes significant damage to brain development in children. The pesticide’s detrimental health effects led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Obama administration to propose banning all of its agricultural uses, but the Pruitt-led EPA under the current administration reversed this pledge. The bill, SB3095, is a significant first step in protecting public health from pesticide harms for the State of Hawaii. In addition to banning chlorpyrifos, SB3095 requires all users of Restricted Use Pesticides (RUPs) to report usage of these pesticides, and mandates minimum 100-foot no-spray zones for RUPs around schools during school hours.

Sylvia Wu, attorney for the public interest group Center for Food Safety, which has consistently championed for regulation of pesticide use in the State of Hawaii, emphasizes that the passage of this bill is a stepping stone towards even stronger legislation: “Today the Hawaii State Legislature finally heard the voice of its people. By banning the toxic pesticide, chlorpyrifos, Hawaii is taking action that Pruitt’s EPA refused to take,” said Wu, “and by taking the first step towards pesticide policies that will provide for more protection for children as well as more transparency, the Hawai’i State Legislature is acknowledging that it must protect its residents from the harmful effects of agricultural pesticide use.” Earlier iterations of SB3095 had called for only a few pilot schools with no-spray zones, but the final bill put in place mandatory disclosure and no-spray zones around all schools, in response to the outpour of public testimony urging for better protection.

SB 3095 represents a turning point for Hawaii, and marks a new chapter for its residents, who have repeatedly demanded protection against pesticide harms. The world’s largest agrichemical companies, such as Monsanto, Dow and Syngenta, experiment and develop their genetically engineered crops in Hawaii. Because the majority of these crops are engineered to resist herbicides and pesticides, testing and development of these crops result in repeated spraying of dangerous chemicals. Many of their operations are adjacent to schools and residential areas, putting children and public health at risk. Voluntarily reported pesticide use data shows that these companies apply thousands of gallons and pounds of RUPs in Hawaii each year.

“There is much to celebrate,” said Gary Hooser, president of the public interest group Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA). “This was a compromise in which everyone’s voice was heard, and most importantly, the community’s well-founded fears about their health were addressed. Our families have some much-needed protections against chemicals that we know are harming their health.”

The bill, which goes into effect in July 2018, will ban chlorpyrifos by January 2019. Any user that wishes to continue using chlorpyrifos may do so only by applying for an exemption with the State. No exemption will be granted after 2022. The mandatory reporting and no-spray zone provisions are effectively immediately with no exemptions.