A Long-term Solution to America’s Lead Problem

Installing lead service lines has been illegal since 1986, yet approximately 6.1 million lead pipes still lurk underground, distributing drinking water to thousands of commercial, industrial and residential buildings across the country. As a result, municipal water systems contaminated with high levels of lead continue to arise across the country, including now infamous examples like Flint, Mich.

When evaluating the cost and time to replace a building’s service line or potable water system, short-term patches, such as installing water filters or buying plastic water bottles, may seem appealing. Many building owners and facility managers are instead moving toward more reliable, long-term solutions to guarantee the health and safety of the children and adults who live and work inside.

Reducing versus Eliminating Lead Contamination

Filters are a viable, short-term approach for ensuring water quality. As part of a comprehensive strategy, filters can help protect our health while the long-term solution of a pipe replacement project is undertaken. However, it’s important to differentiate short-term from long-term solutions.

To receive a National Sanitation Foundation certification, a filter must reduce lead content to 10 parts per billion (ppb) or less, among other non-lead requirements. Although this is below the EPA’s limit of 15 ppb, the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control openly state there is no safe level of lead. So, even if a filter can remove 99 percent of lead, that is still a reduction of lead, not an elimination.

The only long-term solution to eliminate the risk of lead contamination completely is to replace all lead pipes and components. This can be seen from several recent examples (Flint; Milwaukee, Wis.; and Newark, N.J.) along with countless other municipalities replacing lead with new copper piping.

A properly designed and installed copper water system can last the entire life of a building (Copper Tube Handbook). Copper has long-term, proven experience of reliable, leak-free installation in a variety of systems and settings and is able to protect the water system from outside contamination, and does so with proven life-cycle value. As a result, 80 percent of North America utilities are using copper to deliver safe, potable water to their customers.

Understanding the Lead and Copper Rule

Some discussions of piping and water quality get derailed by confusion around the Lead and Copper Rule. In most water systems, lead and copper can be picked up as the water is distributed. So the most effective means of regulation is through a rule ensuring water systems implement adequate handling processes to account for potential leaching of these metals. While both metals may be present in a water system, the difference between the two is massive and sometimes misunderstood.

Unlike lead, which is toxic, copper is a necessary nutrient for human life and development. One of copper’s main functions inside the human body is to form cross-links in collagen and elastin, which maintains and repairs the connective tissues critical for coronary health. We consume copper daily through common foods, like dark chocolate, whole grains, almonds and shellfish.

An average individual would need to consume 4 to 5 times the normal amount of copper over a lengthy period of time to experience its mild side effects, which can include upset stomach, bloating and headache. The conservative regulatory level included in the Lead and Copper Rule is a maximum of 1,300 micrograms of copper per liter of water, which is 86 times better than the 15 micrograms maximum for lead.

More important is the fact that the conditions that may cause copper leaching are established and well known. Other metals, plastics and concrete all have the potential to leach small amounts of contaminants that are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Unlike copper, most of these regulated contaminants do not offer any health benefits. Because of this and other factors, copper remains an ideal plumbing material for drinking water because of its corrosion resistance, formability, durability, dependability, life-cycle value, recyclability and safety.

To end lead’s damage, decision-makers must accept two realities: Although they are useful, short-term compromises like filter programs will not eradicate the hazard of lead contamination, and the association between copper and lead is often misunderstood or unintentionally misreported. We should not be forced to endure the consequences of piping mistakes made 100 years ago. If your community or a community near you has high levels of lead, the solution is obvious: accept nothing less than copper as a replacement.

To learn more about copper piping and installation best practices visit www.copperservicelines.org.

About the Author

Andrew G. Kireta Jr.
Andrew G. Kireta Jr. is the vice president of the Copper Development Association (CDA) Inc. Kireta is responsible for the use of copper and copper alloy systems and products in building construction applications, including plumbing, mechanical and architectural systems.

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