Lead pipes have been a problem for societies since the Romans controlled most of Europe, Steve Elmore says.
But while they have been in use for centuries, the dangers of lead poisoning only were learned during the last century — and the problem isn’t going away any time soon.
“This has been a constant struggle,” said Elmore, state Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater director. “Until we replace them all, we’ll have a problem.”
Elmore gave a presentation to the Jefferson County Democrats during a public forum at the Fort Atkinson Club Tuesday, discussing the dangers of lead pipes, how Jefferson County communities are impacted and potential solutions.
Lead enters the water system through contact with the piping and plumbing and there is no safe level of lead ingestion, according to Elmore.
There still are lead pipes across Wisconsin, and that includes Jefferson County, Elmore said.
While there is no safe level of lead ingestion, state and federal laws do allow some lead in the water and Jefferson County municipalities have homes that have occasionally exceeded that maximum allowed amount.
Lake Mills has had the most by far, with 14 exceedances of the maximum. Waterloo has had the second-most exceedances with four. Johnson Creek has logged two exceedances and both Jefferson and Watertown each have had one.
Officials in Lake Mills, according to Elmore, thought the city had just 40 lead service lines. But after working with the DNR to learn the scope of the problem, they found out there were 387 lead pipes.
Waterloo, the second-worst offender, tested off the charts the last time the DNR surveyed its water system. Elmore said it came in at 18 parts per billion — and the maximum allowed amount is 15 parts per billion.
“That’s an unacceptably high level,” Elmore said. “They need to take action.”
But knowledge is power to Elmore, and he said the more the DNR can learn about the scope of the issue, the better it can be tackled.
“There’s a lot of lead in our pipes in Wisconsin,” Elmore said. “We have the most public water systems of any state in the country. But the number of reported lead pipes means we’re doing something about it. While troubling, it means we’re working hard on it.”
Most of the lead pipes, according to Elmore, are the connection between the municipality’s water main under the street and the home. These usually are owned in part by both the water utility and homeowner.
Elmore said there are a few ways to determine whether a home has lead pipes. The color of the pipe is the first indicator: If a pipe is penny colored, it’s OK, but if it’s gray, that means it’s either lead or galvanized steel.
If the pipe is gray, the next step is to do a scrape test. If the scrapings from the pipe are dull, then it’s steel, but if they are shiny, then the pipe likely is made of lead.
To confirm, the homeowner can do a magnet test. Lead isn’t magnetic so there wouldn’t be any attraction, Elmore said.
If a homeowner has lead pipes, Elmore said, there are a few steps they can take:
- Check and replace the service line.
- Check water fixtures and plumbing.
- Flush stagnant water from the fixture before drinking it.
- Clean faucet aerators.
- Use cold water for drinking and baby formula.
- Use a lead-approved filter.
- Support water utility’s efforts to replace lead pipes.
While there are small things that can be done to minimize the chances of harm, the only real solution is replacing all the lead pipes, the DNR guest said.
The problem, though, is replacement is expensive. Elmore said that the cost of replacing the service line from the water main to the home is split. The utility is on the hook to replace the section of the line it owns, and the homeowner is on the hook for the section he or she owns.
While the state does have some programs to help homeowners and municipalities pay for the replacements, funding is dwindling.
“We’re at a crossroads,” Elmore said. “We need more funding at the state level.”
In 2018, Jefferson, Lake Mills and Waterloo took advantage of this state funding. Jefferson received $450,000 while Waterloo and Lake Mills each got $300,000.
Not every community took advantage of this grant money, but they all do have plans to work toward replacing all the lead pipes. Most of the municipalities plan to replace them as they do street reconstruction so the street only needs to be dug up once.
Replacing entire water systems can get expensive, but Elmore said it is a good investment in the future of a community.
“For every dollar spent, we gain $1.33 to $2 of health benefit,” Elmore said.
Replacing the lead pipes is only one piece of this puzzle, according to Elmore.
To slow down the problem, municipalities can put a phosphorous-based chemical in the water that counteracts the lead. While the phosphorus has no harmful effect on humans, if it ends up in that city’s drains, it can be harmful to the environment, he said.
Additionally, municipalities have to work to keep the corrosivity of their water to a minimum, Elmore said. If the water is more corrosive as it flows through a lead pipe, more lead will be stripped off the pipe and get into the water supply.
A big problem with water corrosivity is the salt that gets spread on the roads during the winter. The salt ends up off the road and seeping into the groundwater, the source of most of Wisconsin’s water, according to Elmore. If the salt gets into the groundwater, the drinking water gets more corrosive.
“The question is are they managing the corrosivity of the water so everyone is protected?” Elmore said.
Elmore said the DNR is expecting reports on lead pipes from Lake Mills and Waterloo, the two most affected municipalities, in December and March, respectively.