Racine faces a mammoth task of replacing unhealthy lead pipes

RACINE, Wisconsin (AP) – The city of Racine had nearly 11,000 lead pipes supplying water to its nearly 80,000 residents in July when the city announced it had received a $ 1.6 million grant from the state Safe Drinking Water Loan Program.

The grant included the removal of approximately 400 lead pipes that supply the people of Racine with water.

At this rate, it could take another 25 years to replace all of the lead pipe utilities on private property in the city.

The dangers of lead to the human body have been known for decades, but the process of removing old lead lines from private property has slowly crept in – largely due to a lack of funding.

“There is no excuse for Wisconsinites to turn their faucets on and worry about the impact drinking water could have on their children and families,” said Neubauer.

A 2015 report by the Wisconsin Department of Health reported nationwide testing on children that the percentage with elevated blood lead levels was 4.6%. The same report found that the percentage under the jurisdiction of the Racine City Public Health Department was 9% for 1-year-olds and 10.2% for 2-year-olds, the Racine Journal Times reported.

For comparison, in Flint, Michigan, a city internationally known for its dangerously poor water quality, the percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels was 4.9%.

Further tests in 2016 showed that the number of children in Wisconsin who had that much lead in their blood were actually lead poisoned (5 micrograms per deciliter) was 5% – twice as much as Flint’s children, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Social Services.

In short, Wisconsin water is often worse off than Flint water.

There is a cross-aisle understanding that significant federal action (i.e. funding) would likely be required to completely replace all of America’s lead pipes.

In addition to Neubauer at a virtual lunch hosted by WisPolitics.com on September 21, State Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, discussed Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda, which consists of three components: the American Rescue Plan Act, the American Jobs Plan, and the American Family Plan.

The second component, commonly known as the infrastructure bill, is priced at around $ 2 trillion, including $ 45 billion for lead pipe replacement.

The bill is being debated in Congress with no Republican support and a handful of Democrats opposed, making it virtually impossible to pass at the moment unless some change their minds.

As Cowles noted, Wisconsin has long slowly addressed the lead pipe utility problem. What federal funding represents, he said, is a way forward that could expedite the replacement of lead pipes in the state.

Some Wisconsin cities are ahead of the curve. Madison committed in 2001 to removing the last of its lead pipe service lines at a cost of less than $ 20 million. Green Bay removed its approximately 2,000 remaining pipes over a five-year period in a project that was completed last year.

Other cities – like Racine – still have a long way to go. Milwaukee, for example, has approximately 70,000 private lead pipe service lines that need to be replaced.

While the state is waiting for further funding, the city continues to monitor lead levels in drinking water – as required by federal law.

The Safe Drinking Water Act was passed by Congress in 1974, but it wasn’t until 1991 that the lead and copper rule was added. LCR limits copper and lead concentrations on the consumer’s tap, a tricky business as communities cannot force property owners to pay the thousands of dollars it takes to replace lead pipes.

Also debatable are the lead pipes, which are concentrated in older, impoverished neighborhoods, where homeowners often cannot afford the expense of removing and replacing pipes or putting bottled water in.

In order to determine the lead concentrations, municipalities have to test the water on the tap.

According to Joel Brunner, the head of the drinking water system of the Racine Water Utility, the city is obliged to sample at least 50 locations with verified pipe connections annually.

If 90% of these results are below 15 ppb (parts per billion), the utility is considered compliant.

If the 90th percentile is 15 ppb or more, further sampling and public education are needed, Brunner explained.

The Racine water utility currently complies with the LCR.

In 2021, the utility collected 53 samples at the tap. The mean lead concentration was 2.6 ppb (median: 1.4 ppb; maximum: 20 ppb; minimum: 0.25 ppb; 90th percentile: 5.7 ppb).

Although the lead concentration was well below the limit set by the LCR, it is important to note that there are no safe values ​​for lead exposure.

The Environmental Protection Agency notes that lead bioaccumulation – toxins that build up in the human body – can be particularly harmful to infants, children, and pregnant mothers.

Even low exposure can lead to learning disabilities, along with other negative health consequences.

Dottie-Kay Bowersox, the city’s public health department, recommended that parents follow government directives and have their children’s blood tested three times before the age of 3 and once a year thereafter until the age of 6.

The city has an inventory of lead-pipe houses. Those who qualify for exams and pipe replacement grants will be contacted by the city.

Researchers began to understand the dangers of lead pipes to human health in the late 19th century, but the pipes continued to be used until the 1940s.

This was due in part to an organized effort by the lead pipe industry.

Richard Rabin, a researcher with the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety And Health who published articles on the defunct Lead Industries Association and its efforts to promote lead, pointed out that lead pipes were recognized as the cause of lead poisoning in the late 19th century.

By the 1920s, he notes, communities had begun banning the use of lead pipes for drinking water supplies.

“To counter this trend, the lead industry has carried out a long and effective campaign to promote the use of lead pipes,” Rabin wrote in a 2008 report published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The LIA campaign began in 1928 in an effort to influence plumbers, water authorities, architects, and federal agencies. The association also published books and articles promoting lead pipes over other materials and ignoring the health disadvantages. They talked about the benefits of lead, such as its 35 year lifespan; The iron pipes – a popular pipe material at the time – only lasted 16 years. The financial savings to the communities have been compelling, but only if they ignored or were blinded by the truths about the danger of lead.

The LIA has also tried successfully to change municipal regulations in favor of lead pipes.

However, evidence of damage from lead pipes accumulated until 1986 when Congress banned the continued use of lead pipes.

However, the legislation was not accompanied by means to eliminate 100 years of lead pipe installation.

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