SCIENCE BEHIND THE NEWS: Lead pipes are still being used in American cities. It’s a crime.

A recent article in the Associated Press features Prandy Tavarez and his wife, residents of a century-old neighborhood, who discovered their water was contaminated by lead due to the presence of lead pipes. Although a road crew removed part of the pipe, they left the remainder in the ground. Around the country, utilities frequently leave lead pipes in place or only partially remove them, even during water main work. This disturbing practice can increase lead levels, causing irreversible harm. Yanna Lambrinidou, co-founder of the Campaign for Lead Free Water, criticizes these partial replacements as immoral.

Detroit, despite its financial struggles, stands as an example of responsible lead pipe management, replacing all lead pipes when working on water mains. However, many cities, including Providence, Chicago, and St. Louis, continue to leave lead pipes in the ground due to resource limitations and local regulations.

The EPA first set lead limits in drinking water in 1991, mandating utilities to replace entire lengths of lead pipe when these limits were exceeded. However, following a challenge by the American Water Works Association, only partial replacements were required. This decision has had long-lasting impacts on cities like Providence where, due to divided ownership of pipes, only the utility-owned sections are replaced, leaving homeowners to bear the cost of further replacements.

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Despite more attention being paid to lead pipes and their risks, the practice of partial replacement remains legal. However, recent federal funds have catalyzed change in policies, with mandates to replace entire pipes and a commitment to remove all lead pipes within a decade. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also included $15 billion to fund the replacement of lead pipes nationwide. Despite these positive developments, activists continue to call for a swift end to the use of lead pipes.

Lead pipes are dangerous primarily because they can contaminate the water that flows through them, leading to lead poisoning. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that is especially harmful to children’s developing brains. Even at low levels, lead exposure can result in a variety of health issues.

For children, lead exposure can cause cognitive and developmental problems such as lowered IQ, attention-related problems, poor academic achievement, and antisocial behavior. It can also delay physical development. Adults exposed to lead can experience cardiovascular issues, decreased kidney function, and reproductive problems.

Importantly, there is no known safe blood lead concentration. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, the ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. The effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected, making it crucial to prevent lead exposure before it occurs.

In water systems, lead can leach from pipes, solder, fixtures, and fittings if water standing in the pipes becomes corrosive. This is more likely to occur if the water has high acidity or low mineral content. It’s also worth noting that hot water tends to leach more lead than cold water.

To address this issue, water treatment plants can add chemicals to make the water less corrosive, thus reducing the amount of lead that may leach into the water. However, the ultimate solution to this problem is to replace all lead-based pipes and fixtures with those made from safer materials.

Lead is especially dangerous because of its ability to mimic other biologically important metals, such as calcium, which is crucial for normal cell function in the nervous system. Because it is mistaken for calcium, lead can cross the blood-brain barrier. This barrier acts as a protective filter, preventing most substances from reaching the brain. However, lead’s deception allows it to infiltrate this protected area.

Once inside the brain, lead begins to interfere with neurotransmitters, specifically glutamate, which is essential for the cognitive development of children. This disturbance in neurotransmission can result in learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

Another dangerous aspect of lead’s neurotoxicity is its induction of oxidative stress. This process results in the creation of reactive oxygen species, which can damage various cell structures, including DNA and cell membranes.

Furthermore, lead can disrupt regular cell functions, causing apoptosis, or programmed cell death. This interruption can have damaging effects on the development and functioning of the nervous system.

In addition, lead interferes with ion channels and cell signaling pathways that are critical for cell communication and function. This interference can impair neurological development and function.

Lastly, lead has been shown to inhibit the activity of certain enzymes that are needed for the synthesis and functioning of myelin, the protective covering for neurons. Disruption of proper myelination can affect the speed and efficiency of electrical impulses in the brain and other parts of the nervous system.

The neurotoxic effects of lead can manifest in various ways, including behavioral issues, learning difficulties, seizures, and in extreme cases, death. These effects are particularly pronounced in children because their nervous systems are still developing, and they absorb a greater proportion of ingested lead than adults do.

WORDS: Scientific Inquirer Staff.

IMAGE CREDIT: Vladimir Kudinov.

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