In an effort to upgrade the nation’s drinking water infrastructure, U.S. environmental officials have set a goal to remove all of the country’s lead water pipes.
An initial step in the process: Water systems across the country are being asked to determine just how many pipes contain lead – and to enlist their water customers to help out.
While Baltimore’s Department of Public Works (DPW) will inspect more than 45,000 public lines, it is asking city and county residents to check the material of the 230,000 service pipes that connect public lines with their individual homes.
DPW has incomplete records about the composition of those service pipes and a limited ability to survey infrastructure on private property.
“The portion of the water service line between your water meter and your home was not installed by DPW or Baltimore County, so there is limited information about the service line material,” notes a frequently asked questions document about the pipe replacement program.
“By reporting the material of your service line, you are helping us identify any possible lead pipes in all parts of the water distribution system,” the document continues.
The assistance is voluntary and described as the first in a string of steps toward a complete inventory.
Following these “resident self-surveys” of pipes, officials say, later steps could include water quality sampling, excavation and predictive modeling using machine learning technology to get the lay of the land of the entire system.
UPDATED below with DPW comment received after publication.
A Key and a Magnet
The city and county launched the lead pipe replacement program after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published new rules in 2021 meant to expedite the replacement of lead pipes through the country.
Local agencies have until October 2024 to conduct a service line material inventory and develop a lead pipe replacement program.
The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act put aside over $15 billion nationwide for the replacement of line service lines, of which nearly $50 million will reportedly go toward the city and county efforts to replace the pipes.
DPW released an interactive map last week showing which homes have unknown service lines that residents need to check.
Residents are asked to use a key, coin or other tool to lightly scratch the water line where it enters their house (usually through the basement or a side wall), then use a magnet and coin to test other qualities of the pipe, as shown below.
Looking for Silver
Copper pipes will be orange or gray. They are not magnetic and make a ringing noise when tapped.
Galvanized pipes are dull gray, also with a metallic ringing noise.
Plastic pipes are not magnetic and will create a dull plastic noise when tapped.
Lead pipes, on the other hand, will reveal a shiny silver color when scratched, are not magnetic and create a dull noise when tapped.
Lead pipes will reveal a shiny silver color when scratched.
Maryland outlawed lead pipes in 1972, but homes constructed before then may still have lead.
The Service Line Partnership has a self-reporting survey that residents can then fill out with the status of their pipes.
The typical cost of a service-line replacement is $4,700. Money from the new infrastructure law is meant to reduce costs for homeowners, especially in disadvantaged communities.
Lead can cause serious health problems, especially in young children, who absorb up to 50% of all lead they ingest compared to only 10% for adults.
Lead poisoning can cause anemia, seizures and reduced IQ, and miscarriages for pregnant women.
Lead poisoning was typically caused by paint, or by exhaust fumes when gasoline was laced with lead. In 1951, Baltimore was the first city in the country to enact a ban on lead paint in residential housing.
But according to a 2022 report by the Abell Foundation, over 85,000 homes in the city still contain dangerous levels of lead, and it would cost up to $1.4 billion to do lead abatement on those properties.
Mayor Brandon Scott has stressed that the self-survey program is being undertaken because of the federal mandate and not because of any known issues with lead in public drinking water.
“Every jurisdiction in the country is going through this process,” Scott said. “The drinking water quality currently meets state and federal standards.”
DPW water quality reports from 2022 showed city and county water to be within federal standards. The department reports that its main lines are made of concrete or iron, materials that do not contain lead.
To counter the threat of lead leaching into residential water sources, DPW says it adds lime to finished drinking water as an anti-corrosive agent.
If residents have concerns about lead in their water, DPW said that there are a number of steps users can take to mitigate the risk:
• Run water to flush out lead that leaches into the water through the pipes.
• Be sure to use cold water. Hot water releases more lead from pipes than cold water.
• Remove debris that accumulates in faucet strainers and aerators.
Answers to Brew questions, from DPW spokeswoman Jennifer Combs:
– How does the joint city / county partnership hope to inventory the nearly 230,000 private lead service lines, especially considering community response rates may be low. Is the partnership going to use machine learning, excavation, cameras or water tests?
Baltimore City and County plan to use statistical analysis/predictive modeling to group private service lines by various characteristics, such as age and geography, and reduce the number of service lines to survey. To minimize disturbances to the public and businesses, the primary method for pipe material identification is the self-reporting survey.
– How about vacant homes? Will the city be doing inventory on the pipes of vacant homes throughout the city?
The Lead and Copper Rule Revisions (LCRR) is a collective effort to modernize the nation’s service line infrastructure. The City is prioritizing completion of the self-reporting survey for occupied homes with active water accounts. There are other pipe material inspection methods that may be utilized for vacant homes, if needed. The ultimate goal nationwide, is to address every line in the country.
– How much money does a typical service line replacement cost? How much of the federal funds will go toward compensating homeowners to replace their service lines.
We know that remediation is the next step following the inventory. We a actively pursuing funding for any possible remediation needs. The inventory findings will dictate if remediation is needed, the funding amount, and the timeline for replacement.
Although the city’s assurances about the safety of city water were included in the story, DPW volunteered additional comment in response to this tweet.
Additionally, in reference to the framing of the article and the tweet this morning, DPW carefully manages the water chemistry in the distribution system to minimize corrosion from household plumbing. Before the water leaves the filtration plant, DPW carefully treats water with lime, an anti-corrosive agent which prevents lead from leaching out of water pipe, including household plumbing. Decades of sampling data and laboratory results prove that Baltimore’s lead levels are historically low and do not pose a public health concern as indicated in the Annual Water Quality Reports. Maryland banned the installation of lead water service lines in 1972, lowering the likelihood of identifying lead residential service lines.