Op-Ed: Are you drinking lead? Pipes bringing water to our homes present a serious risk

Would you drink a glass of water with a straw made of lead? It’s possible that you already do.

The following Op-Ed was published on October 4, 2019 in the New York Daily News. It was written by Rob Hayes, clean water associate at Environmental Advocates NY.

Are you drinking lead? Pipes bringing water to our homes present a serious risk

Would you drink a glass of water with a straw made of lead? It’s possible that you already do. Every day, tens of thousands of water pipes made of lead deliver water to kitchen taps across New York City. These pipes, known as lead service lines, connect water mains to residential buildings.

Lead in drinking water is back in the news after Newark, N.J., recently admitted that the city’s water was unsafe to drink. The parallels to the crisis in Flint, Mich., are clear. Both cities have thousands of lead service lines buried underground. Chemicals added at the treatment plant failed to prevent lead from leaching from the pipes into drinking water. Low-income communities and communities of color were disproportionately poisoned.

But the crises in Flint and Newark are not isolated incidents. Lead service lines are found all over New York City, and they are contaminating drinking water and putting kids’ health at risk. According to a 2018 report from the New York City Independent Budget Office, up to 8% of sampled homes in community districts with neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant, Maspeth, Ridgewood, Co-Op City, Riverdale and South Beach discovered lead levels above the Environmental Protection Agency limit.

In these hotspots of contamination, older, smaller housing predominates — exactly where we would expect to find high numbers of lead pipes.

So how do we get the lead out? Unfortunately, we can’t turn to the federal government. The Trump administration has rolled back clean water protections left and right. Ultimately, every water utility across the state, including New York City’s, must dig every single lead pipe out of the ground. There is no safe level of lead exposure, which means the only permanent solution to this crisis is to eliminate the sources of lead altogether.

Achieving this goal, however, will require a big boost in funding from New York State to help local governments get work crews out on the streets. Fortunately, our state government has a nation-leading funding source primed for expansion: the Lead Service Line Replacement Program, which provides grants to local governments. New York City has already received $5 million from the program.

Crucially, these grants replace pipes at no cost to homeowners. A family struggling to make the rent should never have to pay $5,000 to remove a threat to their child’s health. A just and equitable pipe replacement program is especially important in New York City, where residents are legally responsible for the full length of the service line.

However, the Lead Service Line Replacement Program’s $30 million in current funding is just a drop in the bucket compared to an estimated $1 billion need to replace an estimated 360,000 lead pipes statewide. New York State cannot wait for children to get sick before adequately funding lead pipe replacement. Gov. Cuomo should earmark at least $100 million in new funding in the upcoming state budget to keep New York State on the path towards total lead service line removal.

Some will argue that digging every lead pipe out of the ground is expensive and impractical. But recent evidence contradicts such claims. A 2019 study published by the state of Minnesota conservatively estimated that every dollar spent on lead service line replacement yields $10 in benefits. What’s more, Madison, Wisc., and Lansing, Mich., have already replaced every single lead service line in their cities.

The state of Michigan has adopted a mandate to accomplish full removal statewide in the next 20 years. If Michigan can do it, so can New York.

Clean water shouldn’t be a pipe dream. New York has the chance to make huge strides towards ensuring safe, reliable drinking water for every resident. Before New York City faces a crisis like those in Flint or Newark, our state leaders must take action.