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Crumbling infrastructure leaks lead into Midwest water supply

An individual holds a lead pipe, a steel pipe and a lead pipe treated with protective orthophosphate. The Environmental Protection Agency is only now requiring water systems to inventory their lead pipes decades after new ones were banned
Photo courtesy of the EPA
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An individual holds a lead pipe, a steel pipe and a lead pipe treated with protective orthophosphate. The Environmental Protection Agency is only now requiring water systems to inventory their lead pipes decades after new ones were banned

Blood lead levels of children in the Midwest are exceedingly high, and a new investigation shows lead water pipes are only part of the problem.

As Allison Kite of the Missouri Independent reports: “Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin, and scientists agree there is no safe level of lead in humans’ blood. Elevated blood lead levels can cause lost IQ points, behavioral problems and, in high doses, death. Young children are especially vulnerable to the toxin because their bodies absorb more of it.”

The Missouri Independent and NPR’s Midwest Newsroom are working together to produce Unleaded — an investigative reporting series that focuses on levels of lead in children in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

According to the investigation, the lead industry has a history of spreading false claims that lead is safe for use in pipes, paint and gasoline. The Environmental Protection Agency now requires utility companies to find and remove lead pipes, but Kite said the total removal of lead pipes will be an uphill battle.

Lead pipes can corrode over time, resulting in increased levels of lead in the water supply. Reporter Allison Kite speaks with Jonathan Ahl on St. Louis On The Air.

“St. Louis has about 50% of its service lines made of lead and does not have detailed information on where those lead service lines are and are not,” Kite told St. Louis on The Air. “I think the lack of information is pretty across the board.”

In some cases, like that of mitigation efforts in Trenton, Missouri, chemical additives meant to reduce lead in the water supply actually made the problem worse.

“Sudden changes in the water chemistry can seep [lead] into your water,” Kite said. “So while your lead pipe might not be creating a huge problem today, it might tomorrow.”

Gov. Mike Parson recently signed a bill requiring Missouri schools to test and filter their water supply for lead. He also approved a $27 million budget sourced from federal COVID-19 relief funds to help finance the costs.

Kite said the fact that there are now efforts being made to reduce lead poisoning is a huge step forward.

“While it's long overdue, something actually is finally happening,” Kite said. “I think it is appropriate to be somewhat optimistic since we are actually finally getting something done.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Avery is the Production Assistant for "St. Louis On The Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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