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Opinion | Michigan should revise lead and copper rule to improve public health

The Michigan Lead and Copper Rule under review by the Michigan Joint Committee on Administrative Rules is an appropriate response to the lead in water crises in Flint and other cities across the country.

During a lead crisis in Washington, D.C. in 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) needed substantial revisions to protect public health. EPA recently delayed the revision to the federal LCR again, this time until August 2019. Michigan is taking this important step toward improving drinking water safety after many years of federal inaction. Any time lead is in contact with drinking water, there is a risk of lead exposure. The events in Washington, DC, and Flint demonstrate the consequences of ignoring lead sources in our plumbing.

Related: Michigan lawmakers may require schools to test water for lead
Related: Read Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposal to remove lead water pipes in Michigan
Even after Flint, lead-free water lines may be a pipe dream in Michigan

Lead service lines are the most concentrated lead source in U.S. homes and they directly affect drinking water, a substance necessary for human survival. Despite this fact, the LCR and our health surveillance systems do not collect the data necessary to identify water as a source of lead exposure.

Our lead poisoning surveillance system was designed to detect children who have been exposed to lead paint. We test toddlers at ages 1-2 for lead in their blood because that is when they put everything in their mouths, including paint chips.  

Unsurprisingly, this system for detecting exposure to lead paint identifies children exposed to lead paint but does not identify the contribution of lead exposure from drinking water. Further, LCR water samples measure corrosion control effectiveness, not exposure to lead in water. This lack of appropriate data results in misplaced conclusions that drinking water is not contributing to lead exposure.

Continuing to debate sources of lead will not prevent lead exposure. It merely prolongs the process. Once lead is in the body the damage is done, and there is no threshold below which lead exposure is without harm. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that 20 percent and another study in 2018 found up to 40 percent of a child’s lead exposure can come from drinking water depending on the circumstances.

We will not solve the lead exposure problem by calling it a lead paint problem and only remediating the paint. Pre-1978 homes that are the focus for lead paint exposure are also the homes most likely to have lead service lines, lead solder, and lead in plumbing fixtures and fittings. Everyone who lives in a home that has lead paint, lead service lines, and lead in plumbing will drink the water the entire time they live there. We need do a better job of managing the risks of lead exposure from water – through education, point-of-use filtration, improved corrosion control, and ultimately full lead service line removal.

It is time to begin the long, hard process of replacing lead service lines as cost effectively as possible. This means removing entire lead service lines, the portions on both public and private property, at the same time. It is time to locate all the lead service lines and notify residents of the risk of lead exposure – from service lines and onsite plumbing. The new Michigan LCR is a necessary tool to start reducing the risk of lead exposure from our drinking water.

Removing lead service lines will cost money but spending to lower the risks of lead exposure and protect public health is a worthy investment. This investment must begin and proceed in reasonable and sustainable increments if we are to adequately protect our communities. For those concerned that the costs of the revised LCR are insurmountable or inappropriate, context is relevant. As a country, we spend billions of dollars to control wastewater system overflows. While these expenditures have imposed financial burdens, they are being financed – and progressive utilities do so while addressing low-income affordability concerns. To suggest that we can’t afford to minimize risks of lead exposure in water we ingest (rather than flush) is to misplace our priorities.  There are profound costs of delayed and partial inaction.

We drink water our entire lives. Today, we do so with the potential for exposure to lead.  Let’s work to leave a different legacy for our children – a lead-free legacy.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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