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The infrastructure bill won’t eliminate lead pipes — which aren’t the biggest problem

a water faucet

Last week, the Senate passed its bipartisan infrastructure deal. Much attention has been paid to the bill’s funding for things such as bridges, highways and public transit — as well as congressional Democrats’ much larger plans for a second bill.

Flying under the radar, however, is President Biden’s aspiration to replace all of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines, in a bid to stop the Flint, Mich., water crisis from ever repeating itself. Biden initially wanted $45 billion for this purpose, but the number has been trimmed down to $15 billion, half of which will take the form of loans. It is doubtful that this lower amount can get the job done; indeed, some cost estimates run as high as $60 billion.

Perhaps lead remediation is an issue best left to local governments anyhow. But if Congress decides to renegotiate this issue before sending the bill to the president, or considers action in the future, it should take a broader view of the problem. As I explain in an issue brief for the Manhattan Institute, Congress is focused on water, ignoring that plumbing does not account for most Americans’ lead exposure these days.

First things first: Lead is bad. Good studies show that, for example, it decreases children’s academic performance and IQ and may reduce self-control, leading to future criminal acts. And while we’ve made immense progress in the fight against lead exposure, a small percentage of the nation’s children still have unacceptably high blood-lead levels.

Experts are unanimous that blood-lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) are harmful. Most are concerned about lower levels as well — their refrain is that there’s “no known safe level of lead” — though there’s considerable uncertainty as to when lead’s various effects might drop off. One recent study suggested that “the relationship between early lead exposure and non-cognitive skills, crime and high school completion becomes much weaker below certain thresholds,” specifically about 5 to 7 µg/dL, though there wasn’t a clear threshold for high-school GPA.

Fortunately, though, most American kids (and adults) don’t have blood-lead levels anywhere near the clearly problematic ones. The median level, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is below 1 µg/dL. More than 19 out of 20 Americans have levels below 3 µg/dL. Still, hundreds of thousands of kids have levels that are high by any definition, and they should be our primary concern.

Water is part of this problem, especially for infants who drink formula mixed with tap water. But it’s not the dominant part. Old lead paint, which crumbles into toxic chips and dust, as well as soil contaminated by the long-ago use of leaded gasoline, are under-appreciated factors.

A 2017 study by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) researchers, for example, estimated that the 10 percent of 1-year-olds who are most exposed to lead get just 7 percent of their exposure from water, with food contributing 16 percent and soil and dust a whopping 77 percent. For the most exposed infants in their first half-year of life, 39 percent of lead exposure came from water and 52 percent from soil and dust.

The EPA painted a similar picture in a recent regulatory document discussing its review of the Lead and Copper Rule, which governs how water systems must address lead problems.

The EPA estimates that drinking water can make up 20 percent or more of a person’s total exposure to lead. Infants who consume mostly formula mixed with tap water can, depending on the level of lead in the system and other sources of lead in the home, receive 40 to 60 percent of their exposure to lead from drinking water used in the formula.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. The nation does have 6 to 10 million remaining lead service lines, but proper “corrosion control” measures — already required, though not always delivered — can largely stop lead from leaching into the water. Even the Flint water crisis itself, unforgivable as it was, caused nowhere near the increase in kids’ blood-lead levels that one would fear from the media coverage, according to two experts in toxicology and environmental health.

Lead-pipe removal also poses immense logistical challenges. Many places don’t even know where all their lead service lines are — and some of this plumbing is considered private property.

In general, our lead remediation efforts need to be broader than removing and replacing water pipes. Communities with lead problems need to figure out where their issues lie and address them. And if Congress wants to provide more funding, legislators should avoid dictating that money must be spent on one specific source of exposure.

To be clear, there’s no defending the existence of lead pipes. It’s good we no longer install them, and no one should be thrilled that, when a city has lead plumbing, it can be one bout of official incompetence away from toxic water. But let’s be frank about the other side of the equation, too: Spending $15 billion won’t remove all the plumbing with lead in America, and even if it could, most of the overall lead problem would remain.

Robert VerBruggen is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where he writes on issues including economic policy, public finance, health care, education, family policy and public safety. He is a former deputy managing editor of National Review, managing editor of The American Conservative and editor at RealClearPolicy. Follow him on Twitter @RAVerBruggen.

Tags Flint water crisis Joe Biden Lead Lead and Copper Rule Lead poisoning

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