What You Need to Know About New Policies to Replace Lead Water Lines

by | May 3, 2024 | Residential Infrastructure Day

Author: Kaia Koglin

Lead was widely used in water pipes prior to 1986. It was easy to work with, and the health consequences of lead exposure weren’t very well understood. However, we now understand the health impact of lead. Although it’s no longer used for water lines, the EPA estimates there are still 9.2 million lead service lines across the United States, and 56% of the population drinks water with detectable lead levels. 

Water contamination scandals have brought the issue of replacing lead pipes to the forefront of people’s minds, and the Biden administration is taking steps toward lead pipe replacement. Most of the initiatives are aimed at government and community organizations, but if you’re a homeowner, you should still understand your responsibilities. 

Impact of Lead Water Pipes

The lead in pipes corrodes over time and leaks into the water that runs through the pipes. For many Americans, this is the water they drink. The EPA states that the goal is zero lead in drinking water. As it can accumulate in the body over time, any level of lead can cause health issues. The impact of lead on children has been well-documented. It can include:

  • Learning and behavior problems
  • Lower IQ
  • Hyperactivity
  • Slower growth
  • Anemia
  • Hearing problems

In adults, lead has been linked to:

  • High blood pressure
  • Hypertension
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Decreased kidney function
  • Reproductive problems in men and women

When pregnant people are exposed to lead, it can also lead to reduced growth of the baby and premature birth. 

Lead Pipe Replacement Measures

Recently, the administration has announced a number of measures to reduce exposure to lead. The driver of these changes is the Lead and Copper Rule Improvements. These are new guidelines from the EPA regarding acceptable lead content. They change the maximum allowable lead content in water for that water to be considered lead-free. The changes also state that most cities must replace lead service water pipes within 10 years, but it’s likely there’ll be an extension for cities with a lot of lead to replace. 

A number of bills are providing lead service line replacement grant programs and other support to help communities achieve this goal. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) includes $15 billion of funding for lead water pipe replacement and an additional $11.7 billion for communities to use for any drinking water infrastructure, including lead pipe replacement assistance programs. Build America, Buy America is part of this bill and emphasizes hiring Americans and using American products to complete the replacement of pipes. 

Other initiatives that include funding for lead service line replacement programs include:

  • Bipartisan Infrastructure Law: $3 billion 
  • American Rescue Plan: $350 billion
  • Build Back Better: $15 billion for various communities

What Homeowners Need to Know

Most of the funding from these programs is going to utility companies or government agencies. Although it’s not completely clear, it’s expected that any company accepting money through these funds will have to pay for the whole replacement and not pass any costs on to customers. 

Replacing lead service lines requires that contractors enter your home. It’s in your best interest to provide permission, as changing lead pipes yourself can cost anywhere between $2,000 and $15,000 (CAD 2,696 and CAD 20,221). Utility companies state that getting permission can be difficult, so some jurisdictions are passing laws that require homeowners to allow construction crews onto their properties for lead pipe removal. 

It’s important to note that homeowners are responsible for water line replacement in their own homes. While utilities are expected to replace service lines and water mains that transport water to your home, there’s still the possibility that you have lead pipes throughout your home. This is more likely to be the case with older homes. The Build Back Better Act has put $5 billion aside for home preservation and rehabilitation programs. If you’re eligible for the funding, you may find a lead pipe replacement program that can assist you. For example, Washington, D.C., has an existing program that pays for 50% of lead pipe replacement in private homes. The added funding is allowing the program to pay for 100% of the cost. 

The final issue that may impact homeowners is locating lead pipes. As these pipes are generally older, there aren’t always good records of where they are. Utility companies may ask homeowners in some areas to test their tap water. Seeing if there’s lead in your water can help companies determine where the lead is. If this is the case for you, the company or local government will provide you with a testing kit, and you’ll be able to get your water tested for free.

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