Tens of thousands of Denver residents drink, bathe and cook with water that comes through lead service lines.
Denver Water crews are moving as fast as a utility that serves 1.5 million homes can replace lead pipes and solder before the soft, toxic metal seeps in too much and gradually poisons people inside.
This is a venture estimated at $ 500 million for up to 84,000 households and will not be completed for much of the next decade. But, so far, state health officials say the replacement program is going well, moving faster than needed, and lead levels have declined in homes with service lines since it began. .
Denver Water reports do not say which neighborhoods were targeted first for the replacement program, however, and federal state health officials would not release address-specific data collected from the utility.
The program is not moving fast enough for Laura O’Brien, who said utility officials replaced service lines all around her Chaffee Park home, but skipped her street. She first expressed concern in late 2019 after blood tests showed high levels of lead in her then two-year-old son. She drank unfiltered water while she was pregnant and made formula milk out of it.
As residents like O’Brien wait for crews to replace their lead service lines, the utility balances the acidity of the water to reduce the amount of metal that comes loose from the lines and can end up in the water. tap water. More than 100,000 homes also received pitchers and water filters last year, and Denver Water will be sending more every six months until the lines are replaced.
O’Brien said she was frustrated when her house was moved, but has since agreed it will be some time before it is her time.
âBasically I just accepted that I’m going to use a filter,â O’Brien said.
Why did we use lead?
Lead: It’s soft, pliable, not too hard to find, not too expensive, withstands stress well, and has been used to transport water for millennia. Even the word “plumbing” is derived from the Latin word for lead – plumbum.
âWe didn’t know lead was a problem for a long time,â said Glenn Patterson, professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus.
Scientists have even found high levels of lead in a lock of hair by Ludwig van Beethoven, which could explain part of his deafness, irritability, gastrointestinal issues and awkward gait, Patterson said.
Scientists did not pay much attention to the link between drinking water and public health until a cholera outbreak in Europe in the mid-1800s, Patterson said, although there were reports of cloudy water in Greek and Roman supplies long before that.
It will be decades before scientists and the public fully understand how harmful lead is; by the mid-1900s, metal was still everywhere – in gasoline, in paint and, of course, in pipes carrying water to homes across the United States.
“Most of the oldest cities in the United States, those that developed on the East Coast and the Midwest, built their public water infrastructure from the mid-19th to the early 20th century and they used the water extensively. lead, âPatterson said.
Denver began to ditch the lead installation around World War II in favor of galvanized steel or copper pipe, albeit with lead solder, according to Alexis Woodrow, head of the lead reduction program. business. The city officially banned the use of lead lines in 1971, long before a federal ban in 1986.
But much of the damage was already done. Utilities spokesman Travis Thompson said the Denver Water service area has between 64,000 and 84,000 homes with lead service lines.
In the early 1990s, the federal government adopted the Lead and copper rule, setting the acceptable amount of lead in drinking water at 15 parts per billion (ppb). Patterson noted, however, that the metal is really not safe in any amount. Bodies store it in bones, blood, and other tissues.
Symptoms of lead exposure include constipation, headache, irritability, loss of appetite, and fatigue. according to the Mayo Clinic. The metal can also damage the nervous system, leading to memory loss and brain damage.
In high exposure, it can kill. A 2018 study by Lancet Public Health estimated that as many as 412,000 deaths each year in the United States could be linked to lead contamination, particularly with regard to cardiovascular health.
Levels of supervision
Denver Water began in the 1990s testing homes known to have lead pipes to see if heavy metal particles appeared in tap water, Thompson said.
âWater is, by its nature, corrosive,â Thompson said. âIf you’ve ever left a rake or garden tool in the rain, you know it’s going to rust on it. The same thing happens to pipes.
For years, levels in homes with lead service lines have remained below the federal limit of 15 ppb. Meanwhile, the utility replaced around 1,200 utility lines each year building on existing construction projects, such as when crews replacing water lines or tearing up streets found lead lines.
But the test results in 2012 sparked a greater sense of urgency and a fight between Denver Water and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. About 13% of tap water samples taken that year were tested above the federal limit of 15 ppb – some up to 57 ppb. Even more tests have shown lead levels ranging from 7 ppb to 13 ppb, with some homes – less than 10% – testing above 15 ppb.
The state health agency ordered the utility in 2018 to slow corrosion with orthophosphate, a chemical that would react with lead and create a crust that prevents the metal from breaking in water. But Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead backed down, arguing the chemical would harm downstream communities and environments.
Lochhead chose to continue adjusting the pH balance of the utility water supply, which would create a protective film in the pipes. The utility also sent pitchers and water filters with information kits on how to avoid consuming lead.
But adjusting the water chemistry and sending out the filters is just a band-aid, said John Adgate, director of the environment and occupational health department at CU Anschutz.
âAt the end of the day, you want low-lead, lead-free pipes,â Adgate said.
Late 2019. The US Environmental Protection Agency approved the Denver Water replacement plan on a trial basis. The idea is to map and replace all of the city’s lead service lines within 15 years and at an estimated cost of around $ 500 million.
During the first three years of the program, the EPA requires Denver Water to replace an average of 7% per year, conduct a public awareness and education program, and show reduced lead levels in drinking water. If the utility meets its targets, it will be able to extend this trial approval for the remaining 12 years of its plan.
Last year, the utility replaced more than 5,200 lines, well above its target of 4,477, Thompson said. Areas with a high population of children and pregnant women are also a priority in the process.
How can we be sure that it works?
Average levels of lead in Denver’s water appear to be declining, according to the utility’s quarterly reports. In 2019, 10% of homes with lead service lines had lead concentrations above 12 ppb, Woodrow said. At the end of 2020, this level fell to 4.1 ppb.
At the same time, 41 homes tested last year had water with more than 25 ppb of lead, according to the utility’s quarterly reports. And water in a property (the location has not been made available) tested up to 2415 ppb lead.
âWow,â Patterson said. “They shouldn’t be drinking this water.” At least not without a filter, which removes 99.9% of the lead.
Not everyone uses it: Among customers surveyed by Denver Water, 93% use their filtered or bottled water for drinking and 97% do the same to prepare infant formula.
But only 68% use filtered or bottled water for cooking, which Woodrow says is too low, especially with absorbent foods like beans and rice that need filtered or bottled water to be. considered safe.
Customers can search for their addresses on the Denver Water website to see if they have any guidelines. They can also ask the utility to test their water to see if the lead levels are high. But if not, there isn’t much you can do except stay patient and follow the utility’s advice.
âWith the corrosion control, filters, and long term replacement, they are doing a pretty good job with the situation they have,â Patterson said. âAs long as customers can use these filters in the meantime. “