How The Thousands Of Cities With Dangerous Lead Levels Can Fix The Problem

The laws are on the books to make businesses fix the problem–we just need to enforce them.

How The Thousands Of Cities With Dangerous Lead Levels Can Fix The Problem
[Photo: Flickr user Jeff Drongowski]

In December, more than two years after Flint residents started drinking lead-laced drinking water, the federal government approved $170 million to help replace the city’s pipes and service lines and expand health care. There is also $20 million available both to Flint and other communities to improve water infrastructure–but that’s almost certainly not enough money.


A Reuters investigation found that 3,000 communities in the U.S. have lead poisoning rates at least double the rates in Flint at the peak of the crisis there. More than 1,000 have lead poisoning rates at least four times higher.

Another study, based on data from millions of children’s blood tests taken at Quest Diagnostics, found that in some cities–such as Cleveland and Cincinnati–more than one in seven kids have unsafe levels of lead in their blood. In Minnesota, the study estimated that more than 10% of kids have elevated levels of lead.

[Photo: Edouard TAMBA via Unsplash]

No amount of lead is safe, and it’s worst for children: Neurological harm can be irreversible, it can harm cardiovascular and other systems, it’s a likely carcinogen, and it’s associated with criminal behavior. Low-income children are most likely to be exposed.

It’s a long-standing problem, but it’s also solvable.

Madison, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan, have fully replaced old lead service lines. (Lansing designed an ingenious method for making the process faster, which it has shared with Flint.) San Francisco replaced lead service lines in the 1980s, and East Bay cities followed in the 1990s. Milwaukee is embarking on a replacement program now.

The EPA could push other cities to do the same thing, explains a letter that dozens of advocates sent to the Obama administration in October 2016 outlining a plan to prevent childhood lead exposure. It could also ban the practice of “partial” replacements, where homeowners have to pay to replace part of the lines. If they can’t afford to do so, the partial replacement actually makes things worse–and lead levels at the tap go up.


There’s also a lot of room to enforce current rules more often and more stringently. In 2015, there were 8,000 incidences of communities violating the agency’s Lead and Copper Rule, but the agency responded only 11% of the time. The EPA could also close a loophole that lets utilities cheat on lead tests by letting water run before collecting it.

Lead in paint–often present in houses or apartments built before 1978, when it was banned–is still a leading cause of lead poisoning. In Philadelphia, the city plans to step up enforcement of current laws by denying landlords permits to rent apartments if they haven’t fixed problems with old paint first.

Earthjustice, the organization that drafted the letter to the government, is suing the EPA to force it to update its outdated standard on the level of lead that triggers remediation.

[Photo: Flickr user eflon]

“It hasn’t been updated since the late 1990s,” says Eve Gartner, an attorney at Earthjustice. “It was based on an understanding from back then of what’s a safe level of lead, but now it’s widely understood not to be safe. In fact, now we understand there is no safe level of lead.”

While part of the solution involves fixing legacy issues of lead in pipes and paint, the other part has to do with lead that is currently used in industry–even when better alternatives exist.

Commercial jets don’t use lead in fuel, but many small planes still do. “That’s still legal, and it accounts for over 60% of the lead in the air across the country,” says Gartner. “If you happen to live in an area near one of the airports where small planes take off and land all the time, there’s probably a very significant exposure to lead.”


Car batteries also still use lead, and if recyclers use outdated practices, the emissions can be around 100 times worse than state-of-the-art recycling. That lead can move from the air to soil. Lead is also still used in a variety of other products, from hair dye and lipstick to wheel weights, small disks that are used to balance tires on cars.

“Every car has these wheel weights on them, and because they’re sort of attached in an impermanent way, they tend to fall off,” says Gartner. One study estimated that 4 million pounds of lead is put into the environment every year because of wheel weights. Another metal could serve the same purpose without the toxic side effects.

These are all things that the EPA could regulate to better protect public health–or if not the EPA, state and local government.

“In an ideal world, the federal government would take these steps, because you’re addressing all 50 states at one time with the same standard,” she says. “But if that’s not forthcoming, states can take steps to protect their citizens. Cities can take steps to protect their citizens. We urge people to press for these kind of no-brainer responses, like banning lead wheel weights and getting better standards for battery recycling.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.