Reports / Reports

Lead-Free Water for All: Making the Case for Rapid Lead Pipe Removal Across the U.S.

Exposure to lead-tainted drinking water is an environmental injustice with devastating consequences. Artificial intelligence (AI)-driven identification methods make possible more rapid, less costly, and more equitable lead pipe replacement. It’s time to ensure that clean, safe drinking water flows to all Americans.

The Time is Now

After decades of neglect, several forces are dovetailing that make lead pipe replacement more affordable and urgent. New scientific, financial, technological, and regulatory drivers can help solve this persistent problem.

Recent data science advances materially boost the accuracy of locating lead pipes—making their replacement cheaper and faster. As of August 2021, the federal government had earmarked $15 billion for lead pipe removal.

Cities are pioneering new ways to fund and carry out full lead pipe replacements—while avoiding dangerous partial replacements that increase exposure risks. Soon, EPA is expected to require lead pipe inventories nationwide, a process that will surface neglected problem areas and provide valuable new data.

At a time when society calls out for remedying health inequities amid the Covid-19 crisis, these push-pull factors fortify the case for—and lower the cost of—lead pipe removal.

  • This is a once in a generation opportunity to solve this problem. We’ve been stuck with it for 130 years.
    Tom Neltner
    Chemicals Policy Director, Environmental Defense Fund

The Human Cost of Lead-Tainted Water

Exposure to lead is harmful at any level. But infants carry the highest risk of irreversible brain damage, often from formula made with lead-tainted water. At all ages, harm to the heart, brain and kidneys is likely from continuous exposure to the metal.

Black children have disproportionately higher levels of lead in their blood. Recently, more U.S. children of color missed lead blood level tests during the pandemic, while the likelihood of lead exposure increased during remote learning.

Image is of a group of men and women holding up a sign that says

Meanwhile, remedies for lead poisoning drain city coffers. Altarum pegs the annual economic loss from lead exposure at $84 billion, for medical, educational, welfare costs, lower worker productivity, and premature deaths from lead exposure.

Spotlight: Newark, New Jersey

Replacing All Its Lead Pipes in Record Time

Newark leads for its fast, coordinated, and affordable replacement of 20,000 lead service lines in just two years. Flint, Michigan, by contrast, replaced 10,000 in five years.

Key to Newark’s success were:

Inventories: Counting all lead pipes built support for lead pipe removal and funding.

Legislation: A new ordinance authorized full lead pipe replacement at all locations.

Funding: Essex County approved $120 million in AAA-rated bond sales, yielding nearly $15 million in savings.

Workforce preparedness: Trained plumbers and pipefitters replaced pipes.

Economic opportunity: An apprenticeship program engaged local residents in these efforts.

Metrics: Replacement rates—reaching 1,000 pipes per month—were closely monitored.

The ripple effect: In July 2021, a new bill passed requiring the replacement of all state lead service lines—private and public—within 10 years.

Our Work and Impact

Accelerating Progress Towards Lead-Free Water

Tapping new technologies to boost health outcomes is key to our goal of improving wellbeing, particularly among vulnerable populations.

Because AI can pinpoint lead pipe locations far more accurately than prior methods, its use materially cuts the cost of and speeds up their replacement.

To foster the effective and responsible use of data, share innovative funding strategies, and to forge new partnerships for fast, equitable and affordable lead pipe replacement, The Rockefeller Foundation in July 2021 convened city officials, scientists, technologists and potential funders from 13 U.S. cities.

By sharing learnings that surfaced there, we aim to scale up the use of data science for the more rapid removal of lead pipes from our water supply.

Six Steps to Scale Up Lead Pipe Replacement

In July 2021, 47 experts assembled virtually to tackle a silent tragedy that has long plagued inner-city dwellers: lead poisoning from contaminated water.

In lively discussion, experts shared anecdotes, workarounds, tips, and tricks to start, expand, and accelerate lead pipe replacement. Below are six critical, enabling steps that peer cities may find useful for their own lead pipe removal projects.

  1. Get granular data to tell a compelling story
    Grab the attention of funders, communities, the public, and decision makers through data-driven narratives and visuals. Trenton, New Jersey, did this by unearthing and analyzing new data, using AI, to identify probable lead pipes in previously overlooked neighborhoods. Next, partner BlueConduit built a predictive map tracking lead pipe counts and locations. It will guide Trenton towards more equitable, efficient, and affordable replacement.
  2. Forge ties to fill skill and connection gaps
    Possibilities include universities, think tanks, and faith-based organizations. In 2020, Toledo tapped Freshwater Future to engage residents through community-based education on ways to reduce exposure to lead. Referencing this partnership in grant applications helped Toledo secure an Environmental Justice grant. Now Freshwater Future works with affected communities with likely lead exposure and a history of engagement in water issues.
  3. Reach out to affected communities
    Involve local residents to spark interest in pipe replacement. Chicago has more lead service lines than any other city in the nation (nearly 400,000). To engage communities and troubleshoot replacement issues before scaling up, Chicago implemented a pilot on a block with diverse engineering challenges. Replacements were free for low-income homeowners. Involving the community early helped garner goodwill and buzz for similar work in adjacent neighborhoods.
  4. Seek non-traditional financing vehicles and partners
    Reach out to philanthropists, banks, and businesses for grants and loans. Explore revolving funds, bonds and challenges. The Environmental Policy Innovation Center’s Water Data Prize, for example, will award $15,000 to startups and researchers whose creative visualizations alert the public to possible lead exposure, and that pressure utilities to accelerate lead pipe replacement.
  5. Launch a campaign to change policy
    Build support for pro-replacement policies, funding, and projects by calling out the environmental justice issues associated with lead exposure. Tap pro-bono lawyers and nonprofits to advocate for replacement. In Washington, D.C., an Environmental Defense Fund study found that making homeowners pay resulted in more partial replacements—which increase exposure risks—in low-income neighborhoods. As a result, D.C. now replaces entire lines, free.
  6. Tackle key challenges creatively
    Asking local leaders to offer water testing or filters fosters trust and cooperation; replacing lead pipes found during routine work on water mains cuts the time for and costs of replacement and reduces exposure risks. For Ferndale, Michigan, a simple ‘How do you know if you have a lead service line?’ web form helped residents determine possible lead exposure, followed by a home visit if needed.

As we strive to correct intertwined disparities exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, we have an unprecedented opportunity to end a longstanding health and environmental injustice. Through a strategic combination of data analysis, multi-sectoral partnerships, targeted outreach, diverse funding sources, and creativity in finding capital and tackling obstacles, we can create a world where the basic human right of lead-free tap water flows to all.

  • Report

    Lead-free water for all: Making the case for rapid lead pipe removal across the U.S.

    A handbook for city and utility officials who seek to remove lead-tainted water from their communities, this report distills critical lessons, innovative strategies, and illustrative case studies shared by dozens of experts deeply engaged in this work. Learn how to locate lead pipes using expanded data sets and artificial intelligence, how to secure diverse funding sources for this work, and how to build support for pro-replacement funding and legislation. Read how cities forged ties with scientists and academics to expedite replacement, and how they tapped community leaders to warn residents of health risks while relaying remedies.
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