NC Could Shrink Drinking Water Lead Levels Under This Federal Plan

In this 2016 file photo, people gather in front of a Flint, Mich. church before participating in a national march to highlight the push for clean water. (Image via Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

By Sarah Ovaska

May 7, 2021

An ambitious piece of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal would replace lead pipes across the country.

Drinking water for an untold number of North Carolinians flows through potentially harmful lead pipes, often without people even knowing they or their families are at risk.

That could all change soon.

The Biden Administration is hoping to rid North Carolina and the country of older lead pipes in the drinking water supply, to avoid repeating the toxic release that’s afflicted communities like Flint, Mich. 

No level of lead is considered safe in drinking water. Particularly harmful for babies and young children, lead exposure affects brain development at a crucial time in a child’s life and can lead to cognitive impairment, learning delays and more. These dangers are why North Carolina banned the use of lead pipes in 1985, with the nation following a year later.

One piece of the Biden Administration’s sweeping $2.3 trillion American Jobs Act that’s being debated in Congress would direct $45 billion to replace lead pipes in water. It also aims to replace service lines that connect peoples’ homes to their water supply, which is normally part of the homeowner’s responsibility to maintain. 

“We have, as a nation, really had an infrastructure crisis where a lot of our infrastructure is aging,” said Jennifer Hoponick Redmond, a senior environmental health scientist with the North Carolina-based research group RTI International, explaining why the country still has so many lead pipes in use.

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Redmond is behind RTI’s Clean Water for Carolina Kids program, which is working with the state health agency to test faucets and water at all child care and day care centers across North Carolina by September to ensure that the state’s youngest aren’t inadvertently being exposed to the harmful toxin.

Some cities and communities have taken steps to rid themselves of lead pipes in their water systems, but removal can be expensive, leaving the quantity of lead pipes bringing water into schools, homes, and businesses unknown.

“Right now, for the most part, piping is only replaced when it becomes a problem,” Redmond said. “So by and large, there’s still lead piping and plumbing infrastructure throughout the US.”

Separately, the US Environmental Protection Agency, headed by NC’s own Michael Regan,  is reconsidering the standards for detectable levels of lead in pipes, known as the “Lead and Copper Rule.” The federal agency wants to hear directly from people about what they want, when it comes to water quality standards. And the NC House of Representatives passed a bill this week that would lower the acceptable amount of lead that can be in drinking water.

Graphic via EPA.

Many communities, including those in rural areas, haven’t had the resources to replace the pipes proactively, though additives to the water supplies mostly prevent high levels of lead from leaching into water. Oftentimes, people only find out if there are high levels in their own homes if they have a young child tested for lead. Screening is suggested for all babies, and Medicaid requires pediatricians to test toddlers at 1 and 2 years. But that’s often a reactive measure that finds exposure after it’s happened, Redmond said. The damage can’t be undone.

People can protect themselves by making sure they only use cold water from the tap to cook with or drink, especially when mixing baby formula, and consider installing inexpensive filters that specifically screen for lead, she said.

And Crowd the Tap, a citizen science effort being run by NC State University scientists, will send out free water tests to community groups and individuals who request them, in an effort to help people see if lead exposure is an issue in their communities.

Lead Dangers Known But Hard to Get Rid of

Scientists and doctors have known for decades that lead is dangerous, but the widespread use of now-banned lead paint and then lead pipes  from the 1900s onward still pose risks to children and adults.

Digging up these outdated pipes is a huge endeavor if Congress moves to pass the giant infrastructure bill which also seeks to fund roadway repairs, bring broadband to unconnected areas and employ millions of people. 

North Carolina doesn’t keep track of how many water systems, both public and private, are still using lead pipes that were installed before the three-decades-old ban, according to the NC Department of Environmental Quality. 

But studies have shown that rural and poorer communities, as well as those with higher numbers of Black residents, are most likely to be drinking water that flows through lead pipes.

Lead pipes led to the crisis in Flint, Mich., with the city’s 100,000 largely Black and lower-income residents exposed to dangerous levels of the toxic metal when the municipality switched water supply sources, and then failed to treat the highly corrosive water that coursed through aging pipes. Dangerous levels of lead got into the water; pediatricians found children’s lead blood levels jumped by two to three times, putting them at risk for a lifetime of problems.

Rural, struggling communities here in North Carolina will benefit from the move to replace aging lead pipes. Some of the highest percentages of children with elevated lead levels live in counties in the northeastern quadrant of the state, places like Halifax, Bertie, Edgecombe and Northampton counties. Exposure can come from both the lead paint used in older homes and drinking water sources. 

Source: NC DHHS

Black children living below the poverty line are also twice as likely to have elevated lead levels in their blood as their white and Latino counterparts, according to a study published in 2020 and using CDC data.

“We know that we have aging infrastructure and in some of our more economically-challenged communities, that that’s where you find lead lines,” said Jeaneanne Gettle, the EPA’s water division director for the region that includes North Carolina.

North Carolina recently began requiring child care centers and schools to test their water for lead, which Redmond and Clean water For Carolina Kids are helping with.  

Parents or caregivers can check a public database maintained by Clean Water for Carolina Kids to see if their child care center has been tested. All of the state’s registered day care or pre-K centers will be tested by September, Redmond said.  

The group has found 8.5% of all the day care centers they’ve tested have lead detected at levels that, if found in the public water supply, would need to be addressed by a utility. Luckily, fixes have been relatively simple, Redmond said.

“In North Carolina, we have been lucky that in most cases, no-cost and low-cost solutions are effective,” Redmond said. “A lot of times it’s just changing a faucet fixture or adding and maintaining a filter.”


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