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Denver Water will propose the removal of lead service pipes from homes across the metro area — an action rarely seen in the United States and one that could cost roughly $500 million and take 15 years.
“Cost is not an issue. Public health is the issue,” Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead said in an interview Monday morning.
The utility estimates that 50,000 to 90,000 homes still have lead pipes connecting their homes to water mains. The metal has been linked to developmental disabilities and other long-term health consequences, though Denver Water already has taken steps to minimize the risk.
“The water we’re delivering is safe. This is really a matter of the plumbing,” Lochhead said.
Lead from corroded pipes can enter the water as it goes into homes. Denver Water has for years adjusted the chemistry of its water to prevent lead from leaching from the residential pipes. In 2012, the utility’s ongoing testing detected lead in a few homes that exceeded federal limits.
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Since the 2015 water crisis in Flint, hundreds of places across the United States are becoming more proactive about replacing lead pipe lines.
In the U.S. up to 20% of a person’s exposure to lead can come from tap water, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
An estimated 4 million U.S. households have children who are exposed to high levels of lead, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A big contributor to that risk is lead water service pipes which can leach into the water, according to the American Public Health Association.
Up to 10 million U.S. homes are served by lead service lines, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.
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The Nation's Health
Wisconsin resident Tory Lowe got bad news following a medical exam of his 4-year-old son. Lowe’s family lives in a low-income neighborhood in North Milwaukee. Many homes have lead pipes that can contaminate drinking water.
As a precaution, the family drinks only bottled water and has a filter on the kitchen tap. But despite those steps, in 2017 doctors told Lowe that his son, Troy, had high levels of lead in his blood.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Lowe told The Nation’s Health. “We don’t have lead paint.”
It turned out that Troy had been drinking from the bathroom sink.
Though lead paint, dust and soil are the biggest risks for high blood lead levels in children, lead in water can have dangerous consequences as well. While the U.S. has some of the world’s safest public water supplies, in some cases, up to 20% of a person’s exposure to lead can come from tap water, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Any level of lead in blood is unsafe in children, but the health risk multiplies when levels surpass 5 micrograms per deciliter, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Troy Lowe’s case, his measurement was 6 micrograms per deciliter.
An estimated 4 million U.S. households have children who are exposed to high levels of lead. Lead exposure can cause fatigue, joint ache, constipation and memory loss, and is particularly dangerous for infants and children. Developmental problems involving learning, behavior, speech and hearing can result. When blood lead levels reach 45 micrograms per deciliter, CDC recommends that medical treatment be considered.
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