Water Quality History: The Rise and Fall of Lead Piping

Lead piping was used in almost every major U.S. city for many plumbing applications in 1900, including to transport drinking water. While material decisions have changed over the years, millions of lead pipes are still in place across America. As demonstrated by Flint, Michigan; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Newark, New Jersey and many other communities, these pipes can present a serious threat to water quality.

Rejecting Lead

By the 1930s, copper supplanted lead
as the preferred piping material
 thanks to its longevity, durability and material safety for human health. While it’s been well-known since Roman times that lead could cause sickness, the material was not classified as a serious neurotoxin until modern research, such as a study in the 1940s that concluded lead exposure caused irreparable brain damage, especially for children and babies. Yet,  it took until 1986 (approximately 40 years later) for lead piping to be officially banned.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implemented the Lead and Copper Rule in 1991 to officially regulate the amount of lead and copper in drinking water. Lead’s limit was set to 15 parts-per-billion (ppb) to protect public health. By comparison, copper was deemed nearly 100 times safer with a limit of 1,300 ppb. This high limit was established in part to account for individuals suffering from Wilson’s Disease, a genetic condition where the body cannot automatically regulate copper levels. For an average adult, copper in the body acts as a micronutrient and helps maintain blood and muscle health.

Lead’s Toxic Legacy

While communities work to correct the mistakes of the past, it begs the question: did the engineers of the time realize the mistake they were making by installing lead piping? And is it possible we may make the same mistake again by installing piping materials that we don’t fully understand or aren’t fully studied?