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Kansas and Missouri have 256,000 lead pipes. EPA wants them removed within 10 years

A pipe that has water
Luis Tosta
The EPA estimates that Missouri has 202,112 remaining lead service lines.

Utilities in Kansas and Missouri would have to pull hundreds of thousands of lead pipes out of the ground within 10 years under a proposed rule the Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday.

The EPA announced a proposed update to the lead and copper rule strengthening President Joe Biden’s earlier goal of eradicating lead pipes. The proposed rule also would lower the limit on lead in water by one-third.

“Lead in drinking water is a generational public health issue, and EPA’s proposal will accelerate progress towards President Biden’s goal of replacing every lead pipe across America once and for all,” EPA administrator Michael Regan said in a news release.

For much of the 20th Century, utilities were permitted to install lead service lines, the pipes that carry water from water mains under the street into homes. The EPA banned them in 1986, but utilities have never been required to remove existing pipes.

In fact, some utility companies don’t know where the remaining lead service lines are.

Estimates as to how many remain vary widely. The EPA estimates Missouri has 202,112 remaining lead service lines while the environmental nonprofit the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates more than 330,000.

In Kansas, the EPA estimates 54,107 lead pipes remain while the NRDC believes there are more than 160,000.

Lead is a neurotoxin that in high doses can be fatal. It was in pipes, gasoline and household paint for most of the last century, exposing generations of children to its effects.

Even at low levels, exposure to lead can hinder children’s brain development and cause behavioral problems and learning difficulties. Lead-poisoned children can have trouble with language processing, memory, attention and impulsivity. Later in life, it raises the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

While the rate of lead poisoning has plummeted compared to the mid-20th century when leaded gasoline fumes exposed children in droves, thousands of children in Kansas and Missouri are found with elevated blood lead levels every year.

For older children, water makes up about 20% of lead exposure, but for bottle-fed infants, it’s the primary source of poisoning.

The NRDC estimated replacing lead service lines would lead to hundreds of billions of dollars in avoided health expenses, primarily from reduced cardiovascular disease.

“This is an urgent public health crisis, as tens of millions of people essentially drink water from a lead straw, unaware of the big risk to their health,” said Erik Olson, the NRDC’s senior strategic director for health.

The EPA will hold public information and listening sessions and accept comments into the new year. It plans to finalize the rule by October.

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