Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Get serious about water and lead

Everyone has agreed that Flint’s lead-water crisis was a wake-up call. If so, why do we keep hitting the snooze button?

Toledo recently released its analysis of how many of the city’s water service lines were made of lead. The report was in response to an Ohio Environmental Protection Agency mandate to map all such lines in cities throughout the state.

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A lead main service line is exposed and measured in Flint, Mich.


Toledo has 30,282 service lines with lead on the city side of the connection at the curb. This is in contrast to 38,680 such lines made of copper.

Toledo’s tests for lead in our drinking water always have shown acceptable levels — less than 15 parts per billion — of the toxin. The problem is that most experts say no level is really safe.

Like most older, northern industrial cities, Toledo built its water system with lead pipes before the danger was understood. Beginning in the late 1940s, the city switched to copper pipes and has used copper to replace lead pipes as they break and/​or in maintenance projects that call for pipe replacement.

The city does not, however, have a plan to eventually replace all the lead pipes in Toledo just for the sake of getting rid of them. That should be something we strive to do.

When we think of the important infrastructure in need of updating in the country, we should be sure to remember that along with roads, bridges, and airports, our municipal water systems have long outlasted their expected lifetimes. We should include water systems — particularly those that still have a large number of lead pipes — in our list of infrastructure projects.

Like most cities, Toledo treats its water to create a coating on the inside of water lines to prevent lead from leaching into the drinking water. As we saw in Flint, however, this is an imperfect strategy because one mistake can create a devastating health emergency that lasts for years and costs hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Flint crisis prompted state officials to request information about how to identify lead service lines in Ohio. We should take it one step further and commit to replacing them all.

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