Does California Have a ‘Lead in Ingesting Water’ Drawback?

More testing and proper mainline replacement is needed statewide.

It has been nearly eight years since the Flint water crisis, and yet we continue to see lead-contaminated drinking water threatening human health and disproportionately affecting vulnerable communities across the country. While lead in drinking water continues to make headlines in the Midwest and cities of the Northeast, it may come as a surprise to some to learn that here in California, we have our own lead-drinking issues as well.

In 2016, Fresno residents were concerned about “rusty, discolored water” coming out of their pipes. Nearly 14% of children tested in one Fresno borough had reported high levels of lead, 25% of Fresno schools reported finding lead in their drinking water wells, and 40 households had lead levels above the federal limit. Expanded testing found an additional 300 homes had lead coming out of their faucets, prompting class action lawsuits. Fresno found that lead was seeping into her water through corroding and unwrapped galvanized pipes.

Lead is a heavy metal that can leach from old, corroded plumbing and cause serious damage, affecting the nervous system, cognitive ability, fertility and more. Health experts agree that there is no safe concentration of lead, meaning any concentration is dangerous. Water systems cannot continue to neglect their aging water infrastructure and wait for another crisis. The irreversible damage that lead exposure can cause makes it imperative for water systems to replace lead supply lines now and ensure safe drinking water for their residents before it’s too late.

Lead-contaminated drinking water is not unique to these cities. An NRDC study found that 186 million Americans drank water from drinking water systems that had lead levels greater than 1 part per billion (ppb). Another analysis by NRDC found that there are up to 12 million leading service lines in the United States, while the EPA estimates up to 10 million.

Although information on where the lead supply lines are located in our drinking water systems is incomplete and lacking, it is becoming increasingly clear that lead plumbing is a problem across the country, including California.

A significant portion of California’s drinking water infrastructure, including lead supply piping and components, is obsolete and in need of replacement. The latest EPA Drinking Water Infrastructure Survey and Assessment indicates that California will need over $51 billion over the next 11 years to maintain and improve its drinking water infrastructure. Fortunately, the new federal funding offers hope.

The bipartisan Infrastructure Act (BIL) is a one-time down payment for our nation’s aging infrastructure and can help California ensure its residents have access to safe, clean drinking water. Nearly $15 billion will be dedicated specifically to replacing major service lines in the United States, and California is expected to receive nearly $250 million annually over the next five years.

This targeted funding will be instrumental in helping California meet its drinking water infrastructure needs and positioning the state to avoid another drinking water crisis. However, as we approach the second year of BIL funding, it will be critical for California to spend the money effectively and fairly.

The following is an overview of the key considerations California must keep in mind if it is to get rid of lead in its drinking water:

1. Prevent partial replacement of the main line by removing all materials that may be a source of lead, including galvanized tubing. The state should be concerned about lead exposure from galvanized lines that have been or are located downstream of lead parts because they can trap and build up lead from upstream sources and release lead into the home. In addition, galvanized tubing itself may contain lead. The extensive damage caused by galvanized piping has been documented in California cities such as San Francisco, Fresno and Washington, DC. In response to the Fresno drinking water crisis, where corroded galvanized pipe was leaching lead into residents’ drinking water, the city banned the use of galvanized pipe plumbing in new construction. The danger posed by galvanized piping is unique to our own state, so the state must act quickly to protect Californians from all sources of lead, including lead-contaminated galvanized piping. States such as Michigan, Illinois and New Jersey recognize the health hazard of galvanized wiring downstream of lead parts and require that they be completely removed.

Although the inventory of lead service lines in California is far from sufficient, the Division of Drinking Water estimates that there are 560,000 galvanized lines on the supply side and an unknown number of galvanized lines on the customer side, many of which do supply lead-contaminated water to Californians could . Leaving galvanized pipes in the ground is unhealthy and a waste of resources when the state has to dig up the pipes to replace them.

2. Addressing California’s severe lead data shortage by investing in a detailed material inventory of its drinking water distribution system and developing a robust water testing program to obtain lead sampling data. Currently, as listed in the following list, California estimates that there are only 9 lead lines and 10,969 lead components on the supply side, but no information on the number of lead lines, components, or galvanized lines on the customer side. This lack of data is of great concern and likely contributes to the lack of urgency and accountability by water systems to address their aging pipelines, which could leach lead into drinking water. The state must take the necessary steps to create a detailed inventory of all materials used in the distribution system on both the supply and customer sides across the state.

California’s 2022-2023 Lead Service Line Replacement Intendary Use Plan Inventory List

California’s lack of lead sampling data also poses a problem in understanding the magnitude of the state’s lead problem. An analysis of the results of a 2017 law mandating lead testing in schools built before 2010 showed that nearly 1 in 5 of the 8,200 schools issued drinking water fountains with lead levels greater than 5 ppb, the limit set by the Food and Drug Administration of 5 ppb Drug Administration bottled water. However, data gaps remain. The taking of several water samples, e.g. B. the first and fifth liters of water from the tap, can also help to further narrow down whether the lead is coming from the faucets and fixtures in the house or from the pipes of the distribution system.

Sampling for lead from the first and fifth liters of water.

3. Keep Californians safe by ensuring basic public health protections are provided, such as: B. Notification, tests and filters when leading service lines are replaced or disrupted. The lead pipe replacement process and other unplanned disruptions, such as replacing water meters and mains, can cause spikes in lead levels as construction activities allow more lead to be removed from service lines. This makes the provision of notices (in the language appropriate for that community), education and point-of-use or pitcher filters to residents, particularly families with children and other high-risk residents, prior to the replacement of the cordset for the Protection incredibly important their health. After replacing the lead supply lines, conducting water lead tests is critical to ensure all lead has been flushed out, the filters are working properly, and the water is safe to drink.

4. Consider equity and affordability in replacement activities for leading state service lines by using federal funds to cover necessary replacements on the customer side. An NRDC study found that rates of drinking water violations were increasing in communities of color and low-income. Because of redlining and environmental injustice, people of color are more likely to live in lead-piped communities. In addition, the cumulative effects of multiple sources of lead, such as gas and paint, are more severe in communities of color, and lead-contaminated drinking water further contributes to the overall harm to human health in these communities. Increasing the financial burden of replacing lead piping and parts would further compound existing inequities, leading to partial replacement and continued lead exposure. When residents cannot afford the thousands of dollars to replace their customer-supplied lead line, it results in a partial replacement and continued lead exposure as the lead lines still remain in the ground.

A recent study conducted in Washington, DC showed that household income and ethnicity are important predictors of who will be able to fully replace their leading line of service. Communities of color are also disproportionately low-income and have low homeownership rates, meaning failure to provide funding for full replacement can result in partial replacement that disproportionately impacts residents of color. California must ensure that water systems that receive funds from BIL fully pay for replacements without charging individual property owners to ensure that socioeconomic factors do not prevent Californians from having safe drinking water.

Rather than wait for another clean water crisis, California has the ability and the means to do it right and address the issues of its premier service line once and for all. Replacing these lead supply lines is a critical step in protecting the health of California residents and ensuring they have access to safe, clean drinking water.

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