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Getting the lead completely out of plumbing isn’t going to happen any time soon, grammatically speaking. Plumbum is the Latin word for lead. Piping materials made out of lead allowed ancient civilizations, like the Romans, to build more effective water infrastructures. Unfortunately, the two millennia process of phasing it out of our modern water infrastructure is behind schedule.
Lead isn’t good for the human body, which is unfortunate, because it is a great material for forming the structure of a pipe. You can even heat it up and pour it as a liquid into a mold and form fittings. It is a malleable and ductile material, which is why it has been part of our plumbing systems for so long.
In the non-municipality plumbing world, we have jumped into the lead-free metal future (as mandated by the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act of 2014). Plumbing manufacturers had to redesign, retool and de-lead their processes. Switching to lead-free brass manufacturing is much more complicated than just changing the raw material. Higher lead percentage of raw material is not a good thing to drink, but it makes machining brass easier. This is a large exaggeration of the process, but machining leaded brass is like drilling a hole in a piece of aluminum, and lead-free brass is more like stainless steel.
Not all-existing lead in pipe, solder or fittings is being transferred into the water you drink. In Flint, Michigan, the change in the water supply was the catalyst for exacerbating the existing lead infrastructure effect. Before the switch to the Flint River supply, the water pumping into Flint homes wasn’t actively pulling the lead out of the piping system to the same extent.
Where do we go from here? I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news: recently, the EPA Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) received an additional $8 million for credit subsidy and was signed into law. In total, this will allow the government to leverage and lend about $1.5 billion for water infrastructure projects. This funding can be accessed by public or private groups, and is to be used for large-scale water grid projects. The EPA quickly received applications for at total of $6 billion dollars in potential WIFIA projects from public and private entities.
The bad news: The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that only 30 percent of our water infrastructure upgrade projects are adequately funded. A 2016 ASCE report calculates that we need another $105 billion, with a “b”, of funding to keep up with our needs through 2025.
About 52,000 community water delivery systems distribute to the USA. Every utility has different capabilities of monitoring historic and new contaminates in the drinking water that can cause harm to humans. The EPA is the federal group charged with developing and implementing minimum safe water standards for all the municipalities.
According to the Washington Post, “The EPA keeps a list of about 100 unregulated contaminants that have made their way into water supplies from industrial sites and other sources. Every five years, the agency updates a shorter lineup of chemicals that it thinks should be tracked and studied and requires utilities to do testing. The current inventory includes two viruses and 28 chemicals, including 1,4-dioxane. The goal is to eventually regulate those that pose the greatest risk to public health.”
This process isn’t working very quickly. In the last 20 years, one new chemical, perchlorate, has been identified to regulate; these regulations are not yet in place. This isn’t an impressive pace for a group that has a list of 100 things that may be causing us harm. The actual regulations are on five-year cycles for implementation.
To the EPA’s defense, deciding to test for something and actually having the infrastructure to test for these materials in every municipality in the USA takes time. It shouldn’t take decades, however. Especially if they have hard evidence that some of the emerging chemicals on their list are causing problems already.
That is not to say municipalities can’t take matters into their own hands. Local utilities may already be monitoring and safeguarding problematic water contaminates. You should be able to find a water quality report from your local utility on their website or receive one in the mail annually.
Still worse news: The EPA is facing a 30-percent cut to their workforce, including $8 billion dollars less funding. There are legitimate concerns about the effectiveness and timeliness of the EPA’s work, however, reducing the EPA staff by an estimated 3,800 employees probably won’t speed up the process of acknowledging and banning emerging threats to the water you drink.
The ASCE study also calculates the GDP dollars effected by insufficient infrastructure. “Future Economic Impacts. These shortfalls in funding will cause the U.S. to lose nearly 500,000 jobs by 2025. Unless the infrastructure deficit is addressed by 2040, 956,000 jobs will be at risk relative to what is otherwise anticipated for that year. By 2025, the nation will have lost over $508 billion in GDP, while the cumulative impact through 2040 is expected to be $3.2 trillion of GDP.”
For an example of an economic result of poor infrastructure, look to the Flint example again. The initial water utility savings projected by switching to the Flint River water supply was $5 million over two years. The lead disaster has resulted in a $45 million water treatment price tag, according to a Guardian article.
Whatever your political position is on the EPA, they are the men and women with the most extensive resources to determine what is and isn’t poison in our drinking water. Clean water should be something we leave out of the political stadium, and lead-piping removal is good for all of us. As Ronald Reagan stated in his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference in 1977: “Those concerns of a national character — such as air and water pollution that do not respect state boundaries, or the national transportation system, or efforts to safeguard your civil liberties — must, of course, be handled on the national level.”
Max Rohr is a graduate of the University of Utah and manager of REHAU Academy in Leesburg, Virginia. He has worked in installation, sales and marketing in the hydronics and solar industries since 1998 and writes this column in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the company he works for. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @maxjrohr.