The municipal water crisis in Flint, Michigan has brought new attention to the dangers of lead in drinking water. When the city starting using the Flint River as its source for municipal water in 2014, the water was so corrosive, it actually caused lead to leach out of pipes and fixtures. In the wake the crisis, Pittsburgh’s water authority is changing the anti-corrosive additive it puts in water to help keep lead levels low.
But it begs the question: Why is lead such a pervasive part of our water infrastructure in the first place? Well, Werner Troesken, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh, literally wrote the book on the history of lead in water. It’s called The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster. And recently, the Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Troesken to get his perspective.
Allegheny Front: So how did we end up with so many lead water pipes to begin with?
Werner Troesken: If you look at the 50 largest cities in 1900, at least 40 of those used lead pipes. In many of those cities, lead pipes were actually mandated by the building code. And the primary reason people used lead is that—from an engineering perspective—it was an ideal material. It was pliable, it was durable, so you could work it around existing infrastructure. Engineers thought of it almost as the Cadillac of pipes. And once it was in the ground—in contrast to an iron pipe—a lead pipe would last two to three times longer. In fact, the lead pipes that were put in the ground in 1900 are, for the most part, still in use. Occasionally people would raise health concerns. But at the time, there wasn’t a deep appreciation for how serious lead could be, so those concerns were minimized.
AF: Yeah, you write that many doctors and scientists knew that there were health impacts related to these lead pipes, but nothing was really done about it for a long time—even into the 1990s in New York. How is this legacy being felt even today?
WT: Well, historically most places did not monitor lead levels in water like we do today. The way you would discover lead is much like you discovered it in Flint. There would be a mass epidemic. One of the most famous instances is in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the 1890s, where they changed a water supply, as in Flint. And suddenly, adults in the city start coming down with obvious symptoms of lead poisoning. They would exhibit a blue gum line, they would get this external paralysis in their extremities. And local doctors were initially dumbfounded about where all this lead was coming from. And then they started measuring water. And there were multiple cases where people were found to be drinking—for years—water that contained lead levels that were 1,3000 times greater than current EPA standards.
So what does it mean to say that water contained lead that was 1,3000 times greater than today’s standards? Well, in the late-19th century and early 1900s, women would use lead as an abortifacient. And there were companies that actually mass marketed lead pills, and you would take the pills to induce the abortion. And people would end up in the hospital and they would often die. So I can go back and see how much lead is in the water, and how much lead is in the pills, and see how much water you’d have to drink to get the same amount as was in these pills. So back in Lowell, Massachusetts, you had to drink eight ounces of tap water a day. So if you had a couple cups of coffee in the morning, that’s what you would be drinking.
LISTEN: “Lead-Tainted Water Has a Long History in the U.S.”
AF: Why weren’t officials or politicians concerned about lead early on?
WT: The focus in the late-19th and early-20th century was on organic pollutants—typhoid, cholera. And in some sense, that focus is entirely appropriate, because if you look at the increase in life expectancy between 1850 and 1950, these are the largest increases in the Western world in human history. About 60 percent of that is driven by the introduction of pure water. And there was little appreciation at the time about the how serious the long-term effects of lead could be. Nobody was taking blood lead levels in children.
Another issue is just the complexity of water-related lead exposure. If you have a neutral water supply—with a pH of around 7—it’s perfectly safe to run that water through a lead pipe. You only have problems when the water gets really alkaline or really acidic. In 1900, chemists did not fully understand the nature of that relationship. And so they would say, ‘Well, look, over here, it’s perfectly safe—they’ve been using lead pipes for years.’ But the problem is that ‘City A’ might have a neutral water supply while ‘City B’ has a highly corrosive water supply.
AF: And you’ve also looked into some of the long-term effects of lead exposure?
WT: What we’re able to do is link people across censuses. So if you grew up in a place in 1900 that used lead pipes and had very corrosive water, we’re able to compare your outcome to a place where there’s not so much water lead. And mostly what we’re finding is if you grew up in a place with a lot of water lead, there are large long-term effects on your economic outcomes. You earn less, you get less educational attainment, you’re less likely to own a home.
AF: And what are you taking away from the crisis in Flint?
WT: The thing about Flint is that it’s a silent epidemic. The effects on children are much more subtle and take a long time to develop. So I think what it does is heighten the importance of studying the long-term effects of this exposure. For all the research we have on lead, most of that focuses on short-term effects. We haven’t been trained to think about how it affects the person over the course of their life. And when you start looking at that data, this story becomes even more serious.
Werner Troesken is an economist at The University of Pittsburgh. He’s author of The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster.