Traces of lead in Providence water lines have resulted in increased incidence of lead poisoning, especially in children, spurring a movement to replace all lead-contaminated pipes in the area.
Despite being outlawed by Congress in 1986, “there are approximately 30,000 known lead service lines in Rhode Island,” Annemarie Beardsworth, manager of design, production and distribution services at Rhode Island Department of Health , wrote in an email to The Herald. Thirty-five years after the ban, these remaining lead pipes are a “risk of lead contamination,” she wrote.
Providence Water, which provides water to areas including the cities of Providence and Cranston and the towns of North Providence and Johnston, “stopped utilizing lead for services in 1945,” Greg Giasson, deputy general manager and executive engineer at Providence Water, wrote in an email to The Herald. But “there are approximately 26,600 private side lead services” in Providence Water’s distribution.
Devra Levy ’19, organizer at the Childhood Lead Action Project, estimates that based on the approximately 27,000 lead-contaminated pipes — which constitute 35% of the total service lines in Providence Water’s distribution — there would be “around 100,000 remaining lead service lines” statewide.
“Providence water service area has been over the EPA action level for lead in water for 14 out of the last 15 years,” Levy said. She added that while the EPA action level for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion, “that’s not the safe level. That’s the level at which they require water utilities to take action. The safe level of lead in water is zero. There’s no amount of lead exposure that’s safe for humans.”
To keep track of lead exposures, RIDOH requires routine blood testing for all children under age six and at least two tests by the time they are three. The action level for lead in the blood is five micrograms per deciliter, but “in 2020, the number of kids who tested above that (statewide) was 631,” Levy said, for a prevalence rate of 3.2%. She added that such high levels of lead may be caused by lead in paint, soil or dust, in addition to lead in drinking water.
The effects of lead vary. “Lead exposure during early childhood can result in behavior and learning problems, low IQ, hyperactivity, delayed growth, hearing problems and anemia,” Beardsworth wrote.
Levy added that common consequences of lead exposure include “long-term impacts on neurological systems and on the brain, like behavior issues, trouble with impulse control (and) trouble with concentration,” as well as stomach and hearing problems. Possible but less common effects include comas, seizures and even death.
Giasson wrote that “Providence Water has been working with a nationally recognized panel of experts to reduce and eliminate lead at our customer’s tap.” To accomplish this, Providence Water is enhancing corrosion control, rehabilitating water mains in their distribution system, offering zero percent, 10-year loans to help their customers replace portions of lead pipes and offering a public education program.
“In addition, Providence Water has engaged with Federal, State and Municipal stakeholders to take advantage of current and future federal funding to remove all lead services (public and private) within our distribution system,” Giasson wrote. He estimates that it will cost approximately $133,000,000 to replace all the private lead services in their retail distribution system and approximately $51,000,000 to replace all the public lead services in the retail distribution system.
Levy, alng with a community coalition campaign, has put together a proposal requesting “an investment of $500 million from the state … to replace all full lead service lines at no cost to the owners or the renters,” she said. “We don’t want to see this done through loans, we don’t want to see it done in pieces, we want to see everybody drinking clean, lead-free water.”
Over 40 state and local organizations, 30 elected officials and approximately 180 local residents have signed the proposal. “The solution is really straightforward: Replace the lead pipes, and you will eliminate that source of lead poisoning,” Levy said. “It’s ridiculous that the solution is right there and so straightforward, and the only barrier is paying for it.”
R.I. State Representative Rebecca Kislak ’94.5 is one elected official who signed the proposal. She noted that infrastructure funding and federal relief packages in response to COVID-19 are potential sources of funding for replacing all of the lead pipes in the state, which she said should cost half a billion dollars.
Levy added that “there’s a lot of support for this. We want to see this investment get made, whether it’s through American Rescue Plan funds or not.”
Kislak emphasized the importance of investing so that every pipe can get replaced, as opposed to the current system where individuals are able to make decisions about their own pipes and health that affect those who move into their houses later on. This also is important for whether landlords can make these decisions for their tenants.
“Lead poisoning is a justice issue,” Levy said. “Lead poisoning and other housing quality issues most often disproportionately (impact) people who have less control over their housing situation by no fault of their own, but because of past and present discrimination.”
“Providence has a long history of housing discrimination, of redlining and all of the factors that play into housing discrimination, and we can see that reflected in the data as well,” Levy added. “Neighborhoods that have the highest rates of lead poisoning are also the neighborhoods that have the highest populations of people of color, the lowest incomes (and a greater) renter population. And that’s true on a state-level as well.”
Beardsworth wrote that “economics are a factor when it comes to managing and mitigating lead hazards. When kead service lines are replaced, the property owner often has some financial responsibility for the project. On average, a homeowner can expect to pay about $4,500 for an LSL replacement in Providence and surrounding areas. Lower-income households may not be able to afford an LSL replacement, and if they do not own the property where they live, they likely do not make final decisions about the upkeep of the property.”
Because of the pervasive lead problem and the inequities associated with it, Levy said that the coalition “held a press conference on Sept. 30 outside the state house where we shared this campaign and the details that are in the letter.”
Kislak was present at that press conference and spoke on the issue. “I’ve been waiting 15 years or more for that press conference, so I am thrilled that we’re going to be tackling this problem,” she said. She spoke about the importance of protecting the integrity and trust in tap water to make sure everyone gets enough fluoride in their water to prevent cavities. Kislak has worked extensively in oral healthfields and even co-chaired the Oral Health Commision in Rhode Island, where she discussed such issues.
She added, “I’m just really glad that folks are paying attention to public health and to the hazard of lead pipes, and (that) we’re working on solving it for everybody in Rhode Island.”
Injy El-Dib is a metro staff writer at The Brown Daily Herald. She has previously covered activism and public health in the Providence area. In her free time, Injy enjoys playing volleyball and crocheting stuffed animals.