Experts say federal funds for lead pipe replacement needed in Missouri

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Missouri has roughly 330,000 lead service lines, the pipes connecting water mains to buildings including people’s homes, and federal funding could help speed up the process of removing and replacing them.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year includes $15 billion for lead-pipe replacement, building on funds from the American Rescue Plan.

Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted Missouri has the sixth-highest number of lead service lines in the nation, and the fourth-highest per capita.

“It’s very important, really crucial, to pull those lead pipes out of the ground, so people aren’t drinking through a lead straw,” Olson contended.

Olson added more than 80% of Missouri children have detectable lead levels in their blood, the second-highest percentage in the country. He noted lead can have serious health effects on kids, from learning disabilities and hearing loss to damaging blood cells. And in adults, lead exposure can lead to heart disease, reproductive health problems, and more.

Dan Giammar, professor of environmental engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, said lead pipes are more common in older cities, especially in homes and neighborhoods built before 1930. He stressed many other water contaminants can be taken care of at treatment plants, but lead is unique because it is the pipes themselves.

“Lead is a challenging contaminant for water systems because they can do all kinds of great things in a treatment plant, but they’re not going to remove lead at the treatment plant, because the source of the lead is between the treatment plant and the customers,” Giammar outlined.

Utility companies often only replace the parts of the service lines on public property, or what’s known as a partial replacement. Experts from the NRDC say financing service-line replacement is a barrier for many communities trying to get lead out of their drinking water, especially low-income communities.

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