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Time to get the lead out

Wednesday, Sep 25, 2013

* From my old buddy Michael Hawthorne at the Tribune

Dangerous levels of lead are turning up in Chicago homes where pipes made of the toxic metal were disturbed by street work or plumbing repairs, according to a new federal study that suggests the city’s aggressive efforts to modernize its water system could inadvertently pose health risks.

The problem starts with lead service lines that Chicago installed across the city until the mid-1980s to connect water mains with homes. Researchers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that spikes of lead can leach into tap water when those pipes are altered by water main replacements, meter installations or street work.

High levels can be found in tap water for years afterward, the EPA study found, raising concerns that other cities with lead pipes could face similar problems.

Most homeowners likely are unaware they could be drinking tainted water. Under federal rules, utilities rarely are required to warn residents that work is being done or tell them they can take steps to reduce their exposure to lead. A potent neurotoxin, lead can damage the brains of young children, lower IQ and trigger learning disabilities, aggression and criminal behavior later in life. [Emphasis added.]

* I bolded that phrase because Kevin Drum wrote a fascinating story earlier this year about how several studies have found a seemingly direct correlation (with an astonishingly accurate 20-year lag) between gasoline lead emissions and the gigantic crime explosion that began in the 1960s. A chart

Make absolutely sure to go read the whole thing when you have time.

Lead abatement may or may not reduce crime. It may just be too early to tell. But it most certainly will have a positive impact on health.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

25 Comments
  1. - VanillaMan - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 11:06 am:

    Let’s remember all the years that plumbing regulations mandated the usage of specific materials, union plumbing and any changes within the industry shut out due to government regulations,

    This problem is a bigger problem, due to those government requirements.


  2. - haverford - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 11:07 am:

    True (and his MJ article is great) - but raises some serious ‘what are we meant to do for the next several “years afterward”‘ questions


  3. - Bill White - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 11:19 am:

    === Lead abatement may or may not reduce crime. ===

    I have read about this topic before and I am persuaded there is a link between lead ingestion (especially by children) and future crime rates.

    It is yet another example of inconvenient data disrupting preferred political narratives.


  4. - Nearly Normal - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 11:21 am:

    Children who ingest lead have more health and learning problems than those who do not. I remember public service ads on TV and radio about the dangers of lead paint chips being chewed on by kids. People in older homes may find that the old paint contains lead. Now, we need to consider lead in water affecting people of all ages.

    I remember reading in a history book that lead in their water helped bring down the Roman Empire.

    Health experts say to drink more water. Now what? Drinking bottled water is expensive and there are all those empty plastic bottles and jugs to recycle properly.

    Replacing the water lines is going to be expensive. It should be done but how quickly will depend on money.

    There are filters that can be installed on taps so that at least water for drinking and cooking will have less lead. That of course has its costs, too.


  5. - wordslinger - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 11:39 am:

    They’re replacing the water pipes on my block. It’s going to take three months. The street’s closed, tons of gravel, tons of new pipe, front-end loaders….

    It’s a big job.


  6. - Been There - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 11:45 am:

    === Lead abatement may or may not reduce crime. ===
    Rich, the other day you corrected me when I said the crime rate went down in NY after their stop and frisk law went into effect. Of course, you were correct that it was going down before that. And one of the reasons cited in the article I checked said the decrease in lead poisoning from various sources. I had never thought of that but it does make sense.


  7. - 332bill - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 11:47 am:

    The city of Chicago already adds phosphate to the water to coat the inside of pipes and prevent the leaching of lead into the water. Disturbing the pipes will damage the phosphate coating, but it will build up again.


  8. - Amalia - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 12:06 pm:

    well, there is some sense to the lead ingestion and behavior thing, but look around the world and there’s lots of violence that cannot be explained by that. the main cause for violence is poverty and greed.

    a recent experience with pipes changing in the street and the effect on inside pipes gives great pause. and most of the in home filtration systems don’t do nearly what is needed for help with the problem. and then one turns to bottled water, which has all sorts of “what’s really in the bottle?” questions.

    and then it rains too much and floods.

    water is the topic for the future. as predicted by many, it will be more and more valuable for purity, and to be kept away from people, even in Chicago, the city built on a swamp.


  9. - dupage dan - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 12:34 pm:

    We see that crime is a real problem in low income communities. Were the lead pipes installed/distrubed only in those neighborhoods? Just askin. Per the article, a substance is added to the water to facilitate a film developing on the inside of the pipes that will cover same in a short period of time. Otherwise, the lead would have leached continuously into everyone’s water. We would expect to see citywide contamination and citywide lead poisoning cases, no?

    I wonder about those cause and effect graphs/conclusions. Leaded gas was not used just in low income areas - it was widespread. The graph doesn’t tell us who the criminals were or where they came from.

    The article states “Needless to say, not every child exposed to lead is destined for a life of crime”. What variable is involved there? The article doesn’t really say. Gotta be pretty powerful to counteract the horrible brain damage described earlier in the piece.


  10. - OldSmoky2 - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 12:53 pm:

    Thanks for the links, Rich. After reading the MJ article, I did a bit more research and found that a 1998 EPA rule requires public water suppliers to provide Consumer Confidence Reports, annual reports on drinking water quality, to all of their customers. I’ve lived in Chicago for almost 20 years and have never received one of those. A 2003 Natural Resources Defense Council study cited Chicago for doing a poor job of informing residents about lead pollution in drinking water. The city obviously needs to do a much better job at that. They could encourage people to at least install simple faucet-type filters for drinking water, as many of those do a pretty good job of filtering out lead. Maybe the city should also consider requiring landlords of older buildings to install filtering systems.


  11. - independent - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 12:54 pm:

    Lead levels in children is a very high correlate with criminality. Getting lead out of gasoline, plumbing and paint has been the biggest crime reduction program ever created. We need to keep toxic things like lead out of our environment.


  12. - Keyser Soze - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 1:01 pm:

    The crime rate seems to have added momentum subsequent to the mid-1960’s Great Society and the uptick in one-parent homes. It might also correlate with the popularity of frisbees. The point is, absent multivariate controls, a theory is, well, a theory.


  13. - reformer - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 1:29 pm:

    It’s instructive to recall how the paint and gasoline industries fought the ban on lead for decades, using the same type of arguments we hear today defending various chemicals associated with health problems from the chemical industry:

    * A correlation does not prove cause and effect (they got that one from Big Tobacco.)
    * Research has mixed results, therefore it’s premature to adopt restrictions.
    * It will hurt the economy and cost jobs if we ban the substance.
    * Just because the Europeans have already banned it doesn’t mean we should follow suit.


  14. - James - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 1:54 pm:

    So that’s what happened to Detroit…


  15. - Nonplussed - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 1:58 pm:

    You also have legal abortions causing a drop in crime. Not only does Steve Levitt show that 18 years after Roe (1992)crime started to drop but every state that legalized early showed the earliest drops in crime.

    The increase in leaded gas use also goes hand in hand with increases in population, but more importantly, urbanization, that could also be the cause of increased crime rates.


  16. - dupage dan - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 3:02 pm:

    Nonpussed introduces a variable that, while I wouldn’t necessarily agree with it, highlights the challenges of trying to get to the root of causes of violence. I am wary of any declaration of a single cause to a complex problem. I am not an expert in this area so can’t prove or debunk. I appreciate the article you mentioned, Rich. It is powerful. I appreciate you providing the article as background.


  17. - Bill White - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 3:05 pm:

    This seems like a reputable scientific study:

    http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050101

    Also, it strikes me as plausible that children living in ghettos had greater exposure to the vehicle exhaust coming from the combustion of leaded paint that children living in the suburbs or rural areas.


  18. - Bill White - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 3:09 pm:

    From the Drum link:

    === But if all of this solves one mystery, it shines a high-powered klieg light on another: Why has the lead/crime connection been almost completely ignored in the criminology community? ===

    A possible answer:

    === Why not? Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at the University of California-Los Angeles who has studied promising methods of controlling crime, suggests that because criminologists are basically sociologists, they look for sociological explanations, not medical ones. My own sense is that interest groups probably play a crucial role: Political conservatives want to blame the social upheaval of the ’60s for the rise in crime that followed. Police unions have reasons for crediting its decline to an increase in the number of cops. Prison guards like the idea that increased incarceration is the answer. Drug warriors want the story to be about drug policy. If the actual answer turns out to be lead poisoning, they all lose a big pillar of support for their pet issue. And while lead abatement could be big business for contractors and builders, for some reason their trade groups have never taken it seriously. ===


  19. - Liberty First - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 3:31 pm:

    Reformer, you should take a statistics class….. correlation does not equal or imply causation. You must be a science denier.


  20. - dupage dan - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 4:17 pm:

    And here I thought the crime wave was created by illegal drugs. Go figure. (snark)


  21. - Colossus - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 5:15 pm:

    It truly boggles my mind that there is anyone who can look at this information and dismiss it out of hand. Unless, perhaps, you were a child in the 40s-60s and had been exposed to lead and are suffering the IQ loss. Quick survey: Keyzer Soze, Dupage Dan, Liberty First, would that fit you?

    Thank you for driving awareness of this Rich.


  22. - Judgment Day - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 5:21 pm:

    “And while lead abatement could be big business for contractors and builders, for some reason their trade groups have never taken it seriously”

    Have you ever seen the current EPA regs on lead?

    You’ll hear the term “RRP” a lot. RRP = Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule (Federal EPA). Total nightmare. And expensive. Very expensive. And that’s just for lead paint.

    The regs are literally so difficult that if a homeowner does the work themselves, the regs don’t apply. But if you hire a contractor to do the work, the regs do apply, and costs go through the roof.

    You ought to see the record keeping requirements.

    I’d be terrified as to what the EPA would ‘impose’ over water regs. And the costs to accomplish.

    You can preach about all the health benefits, but ‘unaffordable’ is still ‘unaffordable’. And odds on, much of this would fall on the homeowners.

    Better think long and hard about the economics before you kick over this particular hornet’s nest.

    One of my ‘projects’ is developing a software application for dealing with lead remediation. Not as easy as one would think. And you learn a substantial amount about the cost structure for performing lead remediation.

    Again, very expensive.


  23. - Bill White - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 6:33 pm:

    @Judgment Day

    Agreed. Ditto asbestos.

    Getting rid of leaded gasoline appears to have been low hanging fruit with significant unexpected benefits


  24. - Six Degrees of Separation - Wednesday, Sep 25, 13 @ 9:30 pm:

    One of our local bridges was widened, and the old beams were salvaged and needed to be repainted. For what it cost the contractor in lead containment for the removal and re-painting, they could have replaced the beams with new, zinc-based factory painted beams. Maybe even saved some money. Just sayin’.


  25. - eastsider - Thursday, Sep 26, 13 @ 7:52 am:

    Correlation does not equal causation…case in point, did you know that increased ice cream consumption is correlated with an increase in shark attacks…does eating ice cream make people more desirable to sharks…just sayin’


Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.


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