Lead Water Service Lines Pose Hidden, Yet Expensive, Danger

by | Apr 10, 2023 | Education, Financial Shock, Lead in Water, NLC SLWP, Water Solutions

When water runs through lead water service lines, it picks up minute particles of lead, carrying them along into homes, where residents drink it, cook with it, and wash their dishes, clothes and themselves in it.  

More than 9 million homes are served by lead water service lines, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. That’s 9 million families ingesting lead particles. It’s imperceptible to human senses – lead in water can not be tasted, smelled or seen – and there is no safe level of lead exposure.  

It’s well-documented that lead affects health, especially in vulnerable children, pregnant people and older adults. Children can suffer brain and nervous system damage, developmental and learning delays and hearing and speech impairments, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In adults, lead poisoning presents as high blood pressure; headaches and difficulty concentrating and remembering; and joint, muscle and abdominal pain. Pregnancies can end with miscarriage, a stillbirth or premature birth. Babies exposed to lead in utero may have a lower birth weight or slowed growth, according to the Mayo Clinic. 

Despite the dangers of lead, lead paint wasn’t banned until 1978 and lead water service lines weren’t even banned until Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1986. However, one of the most common sources of lead exposure is lead service lines, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.  

Older housing stock and housing in financially disadvantaged areas are more likely to have lead water service lines. A Governmental Accountability Office report found a correlation between housing stock age, financial demographics and the presence of lead water service lines. Data also showed that, even in neighborhoods consisting of older homes, more affluent neighborhoods were less likely to have lead service lines.  

The cost to replace a lead water service line ranges between $1,200 to $12,300, with an average of $4,700. Very few municipalities or utilities allow repair or patching of a lead service line, and for incredibly good reason. Studies have shown that partial replacement of lead service lines can cause spikes in the levels of lead present in water. This is most notably seen when municipalities and utilities replace their part of the line while a homeowner does not. The heightened levels of lead can last for months.  

The Brookings Institute estimates that it would cost between $28 billion to $47 billion to replace all the lead water service lines currently in service. In a report to Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency recommended that water utilities invest $300 billion over a 20-year period to upgrade water systems and to, in part, abate lead exposure through water. The lion’s share of water system improvements – 95% to 98% – are already shouldered by local utilities, whose budgets are stretched to nearly the snapping point.  

Although the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has set aside $15 billion for lead line replacement, that is only roughly half to a third of the estimated cost of replacing all the lead lines currently in service. Where will the rest of the money to replace lead lines, especially those in at-risk neighborhoods, come from? Financially disadvantaged communities are put at a higher risk of exposure to lead by their water service lines and also are less financially prepared to address the issue.  

What can municipalities and utilities do to protect these residents? Offer the tools they need to address the issue themselves. The NLC Service Line Warranty Program educates residents about their responsibility to maintain or replace their service lines, if needed. Many residents are unaware that those portions of the lines on their property are their responsibility. The program sends out educational materials, approved by municipal or utility partners, to residents at no cost to the municipality or utility. Additionally, the program provides an optional service line warranty to protect residents from the financial shock of an unexpected, but necessary, lead water service line replacement.  

The warranty program provides a 24/7/365 emergency repair hotline to a U.S.-based operations center and a nationwide network of licensed and insured contractors local to the community. When a lead service line breaks, all a resident needs to do is call the hotline and a contractor will be dispatched to address the repair. There are no call-out fees or deductibles. Contractors are paid directly up to the benefit amount.  

To find out more about how this program can protect your community, contact us

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