WASHINGTON – The number of lead pipes carrying water to homes in all 50 states ranges from 9.7 million to 12.8 million, yet most states do not track this public health threat, according to a new analysis from NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). In a national survey of lead service lines – the lead pipes that carry water from water mains under the street to homes – NRDC found 40 states could not say where their lead pipes are located. Relying on survey data, estimates from industry sources, and projections derived from the states that have done detailed assessments, NRDC warns the lack of data for the total number of lead pipes hinders efforts to secure safe drinking water. There is no safe level of lead, which causes irreversible harm, particularly to children.
“Drinking water won’t be safe until the country pulls the millions of lead pipes out of the ground found in every state,” said Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director for health at NRDC. “President Biden’s American Jobs Plan is a historic opportunity to fix the nation’s lead pipe crisis. Removing lead pipes will improve health and create jobs, starting in low-income communities and communities of color with the highest rates of lead exposure.”
NRDC’s research confirmed there are 6.2 million known lead pipes, and NRDC projects there are up to 6.6 million service lines that are currently of unknown material that will turn out to be lead, based on available data provided by six states and Washington, D.C. (CA, IL, IN, MI, NJ and WI). Since most states have not identified how many service lines are lead, the total number of lead pipes identified nationwide will increase as additional detailed inventories proceed. (See the Methodology section below.)
- Lead pipes are found in every state in the nation. It is not an urban issue; rural states have lead pipes, too.
- Our best estimate is that there may be up to 12.8 million lead pipes: NRDC confirmed 6.2 million known lead pipes; additionally, there are from 3.5 million to as many as 6.6 million service lines that are currently of unknown material that are projected to be lead. (See methodology section below; even these numbers might be underestimates).
- The top 10 states with the most known lead pipes are (ranked in numeric order of lead pipes): IL, OH, MI, NY, NJ, MO, WI, IN, TX, MN. Together those 10 states have nearly 4 million lead pipes.
- States with smaller populations can have big lead pipe numbers. The top 10 states with the most known lead pipes per 100,000 people are (ranked in numeric order of lead pipes per 100,000 people): WI, OH, KS, MO, IL, IA, NE, DC, MI, MN.
- Industry guesstimates can turn out to be underestimates. For example, the 2016 industry self-survey estimated that there were 730,000 lead pipes in Illinois; since the state mandated a detailed inventory, the state has already found at least 679,292 lead pipes, as well as an additional 782,246 that were unknown but potentially lead. In 2016, it was estimated that Washington, D.C. had 8,900 lead pipes; an updated count in 2021 now estimates more than triple that number, at 31,974.
- Only two states (CA and IN) provided information about “partial” lead pipes (that is pipes that were made from lead with connections to other materials, like copper, plastic, or steel). There are significant concerns that many states and utilities have not tracked such partial lead service lines and that millions may remain in the ground uncounted.
- Only seven states have fewer than 10,000 lead pipes (ND, VT, WY, ID, NV, AK, HI).
“Most states are failing to track lead pipes in the first place,” said Alexandra Stubblefield, a research assistant with NRDC who led the survey project. “There could be more than 12 million lead pipes in the country, but in most cases, we just don’t know where they are because so many states water utilities are willfully ignoring the need to locate those pipes.”
Data confirm most states do not know where their lead pipes are located:
- Just 10 states and Washington, D.C. (AK, CA, CO, CT, DC, IL, IN, MI, NJ, OR, WI) were able to provide NRDC with statewide lead pipe estimates.
- 23 states (AL, AZ, DE, FL, ID, IA, LA, ME, MD, MT, NV, NH, NM, ND, NC, NY, OH, PA, SD, TN, TX, UT, WV) informed NRDC that they do not track the number of lead pipes and could not provide us with those estimates.
- Three states (GA, MA, MO) reported they are currently surveying their lead pipes.
- 10 states failed to respond to NRDC’s survey (AR, KS, KY, MS, NE, OK, RI, SC, VT, WY), despite at least three requests for this data.
- Four states (HI, MN, VA, WA) could provide data for only part of the state, which rendered it unusable for survey purposes.
Flint, Michigan’s water crisis, the result of massive lead contamination of its drinking water, provided the nation and the world a glimpse into the frailty of aging water infrastructure in Flint and beyond. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan (AJP) would help every community in the nation remove its lead pipes, by providing $45 billion to states to pull lead pipes out of the ground – while creating good-paying jobs – and help to eliminate the public health disaster of lead-contaminated drinking water. Biden’s AJP would create a comprehensive package of strategic investment that addresses critical priorities, like improving the nation’s failing water infrastructure, and climate action in a moment where the nation urgently needs both.
To see NRDC’s research and maps of lead pipes found in every state, see this link:
NRDC collected data through a survey of all 50 states and Washington, D.C. For the 40 states that either fail to track or could not provide an estimate of the number of lead pipes in the ground statewide, NRDC relied upon a 2016 voluntary industry survey that federal auditors called a “lower bound estimate” of the number of lead lines. NRDC then projected the number of additional lead service lines that are likely to be present among the pipes of unknown composition based on data collected from other states.
The report’s projections include an average estimate of 7.1 million service lines of unknown material, and a high estimate of 13.3 million unknowns. These projections are based upon data on unknowns from those states that conducted detailed surveys of known lead lines and lines of unknown material. EPA estimated that there are up to 9.3 million lead service lines in its January 2021 rule; to grapple with the large number of unknown service lines, the agency simply extrapolated from the 2016 industry study. NRDC took this analysis a step further and combine the 2016 industry study with new data NRDC has collected from states, including the previously unreported data on the higher counts of lead lines in some states than the industry survey estimated, and the number of unknown service lines. NRDC estimates that half of these are unknowns could be lead, a conservative estimate based on data from locations like Washington, D.C. that are finding far more lead service lines than previously anticipated because unknown lines turned out to be lead (in fact, in Washington, D.C. the 2016 industry estimate of 8,900 lead lines was less than one-third of the current estimate of 31,974). Based on these projections, the total number of lead lines would range from 9.7 million to 12.8 million. If more than 50 percent of unknowns are lead, the number of lead service lines could substantially exceed 12.8 million. Of course, there also is some possibility that the number could be lower.
The issue of millions of service lines that are of unknown material is a major problem; EPA has in the past made estimates of the total number of lead lines assuming that many of these unknowns are actually lead. A comprehensive national inventory is urgently needed to provide certainty about the number and location of all lead service lines.
Note: Some data and maps have been updated and corrected from a version released on July 7, 2021.
NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.