Getting the lead out
Experts dive into lessons learned from the Flint water crisis and the steps Denver is taking to keep its water supplies safe.
There is much to learn from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, one of the worst human-caused environmental disasters in U.S. history.
The city decided in April 2014 to divert the flow of potable water from the surrounding Great Lakes to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure urged by emergency managers. The newly sourced water was about 20 times more corrosive. Improperly treated, it ate through lead-lined pipes, releasing the neurotoxin into the municipal water supply.
“Lead is bad; it’s a poison. … (In Flint) we saw it go into the drinking water and into the bodies of our children,” said Mona Hanna-Attisha, M.D., the pediatrician who exposed the Flint water crisis.
“The people who were in power made the wrong choices, with tragic and inept follow-up,” she said.
Hanna-Attisha joined Metropolitan State University of Denver President Janine Davidson, Ph.D., on Sept. 28 for a fireside chat focused on public-health issues that affect underserved communities. Their talk was followed by a panel discussion on local water issues.
Health equity, access to clean water and protecting water resources are among the missions of MSU Denver’s Health Institute and One World One Water Center, which were among several sponsors of the Auraria Campus event.
“As we navigate a global pandemic, it’s imperative that we listen to leaders willing to risk their careers when the public’s health and well-being are at stake,” said Emily Matuszewicz, D.C., director of development and partnerships for the MSU Denver Health Institute.
The Flint water crisis – along with its impact on already-underresourced (and largely nonwhite) communities – had ripple effects still felt today, calling attention to safe water access in communities across the country, including in Colorado.
There is a key distinction between the water system along the Front Range and those that led to the Flint crisis, said Alexis Woodrow, lead-reduction program manager with Denver Water.
“The biggest difference is that Flint didn’t have corrosion control in place, while Denver Water has, does and will continue to do so,” she said during the panel discussion after Hanna-Attisha’s fireside chat.
Concerns about lead toxicity have evolved over the decades, Woodrow said. The heavy metal was commonly used in products such as gasoline and paint throughout the first part of the 20th century before public health came into sharper focus and regulations tightened.
Lead-lined service pipes weren’t outlawed nationally until the Environmental Protection Agency banned them in 1986. Locally, Denver began phasing them out in 1951 and banned them outright in 1971. In 1991, the EPA further developed rules on lead and copper under the Safe Drinking Act to guide how water interacted with pipes, with Denver Water’s safety efforts following suit.
In 2012, testing in Denver-area homes with known lead service lines and plumbing showed a single instance of 17 parts-per-billion lead levels, exceeding the 15-ppb action-level limit set by the EPA, Woodrow said. This indicated that additional steps may have been needed to optimize corrosion-control treatment, she said. In-depth research into the reading’s source followed, culminating in a report to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The report recommended that homes built before 1950, which were more likely to have lead service lines, be prioritized for pipe replacement as efforts shifted toward long-term mitigation.
“There’s no lead in the water we provide,” Woodrow said. “The variance we measured (in 2012) was getting in as it moved through customer-owned plumbing and individual service lines.”
In 2020, Denver Water kicked off a wide-scale Lead Reduction Program, which includes replacing all lead service lines and providing free water pitchers and filters to customers likely to have lead service lines until those lines are replaced.
Since then, it has replaced approximately 8,800 lead service lines at no cost to homeowners, beginning in the oldest parts of the city with the highest concentrations of identified lead service lines. Denver Water has distributed more than 105,000 pitchers to affected homes, with tens of thousands of replacement filters continuing to go out regularly.
As the full replacement effort is estimated to span another 13 years, equity, education and transparency remain top priorities in serving Denver Water’s 1.5 million consumers, Woodrow said.
As evidenced by the Flint water crisis, the ripple effects from systemically broken trust prove much harder to fix than a simple service line.
“We need to take lead issues at their source and be out in our community showing we’re here for them for the long haul,” Woodrow said. “Just a mailer or phone call is not going to cut it.”
Identified households have already been contacted by Denver Water, but an address-searchable map with further information is available here.