When it comes to our health, particularly children’s health, lead is among the most harmful contaminants we face daily in our environment. Health experts who have studied lead agree on a sobering message — there is no safe level of exposure.
One of the biggest challenges is that lead is often invisible and its impacts are hard to notice in the short term. Even at lower levels that cause no obvious symptoms, lead can cause a wide range of gradual and irreversible injury, especially in children. This includes damage to brain development, resulting in increased antisocial behavior and reduced IQ, attention span, and educational attainment.
Exposure also can cause anemia, hypertension, and damage to the kidneys, immune system, and reproductive organs.
Lead also is persistent in the environment. Many of us ingest lead every day, including in the tap water that leaches lead from pipes and solder present in the older lines and fixtures that connect our homes to water mains.
While we’ve known about these risks for decades, and our water systems are required by the Safe Drinking Water Act to take steps to reduce lead, measurable amounts are still coming out of our taps, particularly in areas with buildings and homes built before 1950.
Colorado is no exception. Despite recent, proactive work being done by Denver Water — and providers in places like Greeley, Grand Junction and Pueblo, to name a few — there are still an estimated 80,000-90,000 lead service lines connected to taps in Colorado homes, schools, child-care centers, and businesses.
A recent national study found 72% of Colorado children under age six with lead detected in their blood, well above the national rate of 51%. These impacts are often more pronounced among minority and disadvantaged communities.
Addressing this challenge is long overdue. Over the past decades, we’ve removed lead from gasoline, banned it from paints and consumer products, and have developed a large body of science on its toxic effects. In 2022, there shouldn’t be lead in the water we use to make macaroni and cheese, soup, and hot chocolate, or in the bottles our kids tote to school and soccer practice.
The Biden Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are committed to eliminating lead in our drinking water once and for all. Here in Colorado, we are focused on this goal through the unprecedented funding provided by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which delivers a massive, five-year boost of money to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and its partners to supercharge clean-water progress in our cities, suburbs, and rural areas. These projects will secure vital and much-needed investments in our drinking water and wastewater systems.
It’s hard to overstate what this funding will accomplish. The infrastructure law provides more than $120 million for Colorado drinking water systems this year alone, including $55 million for lead projects that allow utilities to replace homeowner cost shares and fund 100% of the costs to replace lines.
These resources have been described by EPA officials and the Biden Administration as “game-changing,” “transformational,” and the “single largest investment in water ever made.” Projects authorized under the new law will create jobs and modernize and extend clean water infrastructure — treatment technologies, lagoons, pumps, filters, pipes, basins, valves, and the nuts and bolts that go with them — in every corner of the state.
While the opportunity before us is tremendous, the hard work is just beginning. These funds mean little until they are in the hands of contractors and workers removing and replacing lead pipes in our communities.
Over the coming months, EPA will engage with our partners to deliver these resources quickly to where they are needed most, including where people face lead exposure from other sources such as old household paint and soils contaminated from past mining and industrial activity. We’ll make sure we prioritize disadvantaged communities, complete inventories, streamline application and contracting processes, and find and train skilled workers needed to take on these jobs.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is a transformational moment for Colorado. Together, we have a chance to get lead out of our drinking water once and for all.
Making its potential a reality will require hard work, planning and coordination. That work starts with each of us and the awareness of what it takes to secure and maintain clean water. If you are concerned about lead or have questions, contact EPA at R8EISC@epa.gov or ask your water provider about inventories and plans for lead service line removal projects in your community.
The EPA’s effort to eliminate lead from drinking water is just part of a larger National Lead Strategy. Learn more at: www.epa.gov/lead/draft-strategy-reduce-lead-exposures-and-disparities-us-communities.
KC Becker, of Boulder, is regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which includes Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming, and 28 tribal nations.
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