Let’s Make Lead History

New federal dollars can kickstart our effort to get the lead out of our drinking water.

Photo of a child and her sippy cup of water

Sophia the toddler and her sippy cup of water

Credit: Photo by Angela Guyadeen

New federal dollars can kickstart our effort to get the lead out of our drinking water.

My daughter Sophia is almost two years old, and it is an amazing experience each day to watch her learn about the world and her relationship to it. At this tender age she is also learning lots of words and is quick to use them to ask for (demand) what she wants. One word I hope she continues to say this way until she’s at least 16, is the way she says water, which she pronounces as “ya ya.” She is rarely seen without a sippy cup and is very good at staying hydrated with her “ya ya.”

Last year, President Biden made a moonshot commitment to get the lead out of drinking water by replacing lead pipes across the country.  This commitment can ensure that Sophia and kids like her grow up in an era when lead contamination of water is history.

From day one as a parent, a love like no other encompasses your heart. But your brain, not to be outdone, forces you appreciate the gravity of the responsibility to ensure that this tiny person is always safe. When Sophia asks for another cup of “ya ya” (because the blue cup is unacceptable today) I can’t help but worry if the water I’m giving her is safe to drink.

Where I live, the state of Illinois is estimated to have at least 686,000 and up to 1.4 million lead service lines. In early 2018, the Chicago Tribune analyzed Chicago's drinking water and discovered that 30 percent of 2,797 homes where tap water was sampled had lead concentrations higher than 5 parts per billion (ppb). Nearly 70 percent of homes tested had some lead in their water. Health experts agree that there is no safe level of lead exposure because it can cause serious and irreversible damage to the body, affecting the nervous system, fertility, and cognitive ability of a child. Just as I’d never give Sophia a sippy cup lined with lead, I don’t want her drinking from a lead pipe that carries water to my home.  

We’ve also seen that the communities most impacted by unsafe water tend to be communities of color. And in Illinois, Black and Latinos are disproportionately impacted by the state’s contaminated drinking water, being twice as likely to live in neighborhoods with lead service lines as white residents. The problem is especially acute in Chicago, where the city required the use of lead service lines until Congress banned them in 1986.

President Biden took a big step towards delivering on this promise to get the lead out of drinking water by pushing for and signing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which will invest more than $50 billion to address some of the urgent backlog in necessary repairs and upgrades for the nation’s neglected drinking water and wastewater systems. Of these funds, $15 billion is dedicated to lead service line replacement and at least 49% of the funds will be provided to communities as grants or principal forgiveness loans.

Illinois is projected to receive at least $1.7 billion over the next five years to improve water infrastructure across the state, which includes removal of the lead pipes. This historic investment will pay dividends well into the future, but we must ensure that these funds, especially grants, are prioritized to help the disadvantaged communities that need it most. Now is the time to do that, because states like Illinois are developing plans for how this critical infusion of money will be spent. Over the past year and a half, Illinois has replaced only 74 lead service lines and will need to exponentially ramp up this effort in the near future in order to have a chance at getting the lead out before we impact another generation of children.

While the proverbial big check is a good first step, we must turn our attention to getting the lead lines out of the ground in an equitable way so that everyone can have access to safe, clean drinking water. There is already a playbook on how to do this, created in partnership with community groups based on lessons learned from the communities that have worked to tackle this problem, so there’s no need to start from scratch.

It’s also important to ensure the replacement of the lead lines is done equitably. The lessons we’ve learned from lead service line replacement work in Flint and Newark is that the process is always better when the local community is engaged. The members of the community are often the first people standing up, frequently in the face of adversity, to let the world know their water is unsafe. During these emergencies they continue to stand together to help each other with securing a safe source of temporary water and more. And until the crisis is over, they continue to lean on each other for support, because this experience is deeply traumatic and personal. It is not only logical, but it is imperative to include local community members in the rooms where decisions happen that impact their lives.

We are standing at the intersection of opportunity and action. Getting the lead pipes out of the ground is the first step to ensuring our water is safer but we must be thoughtful about how we do this work so that it is inclusive, efficient and effective. This is the kind of future I want for my children, and I know we can make lead history if we work together to make it happen.

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