I knew quarantine was getting to me when the Brita arrived. After a monotonous few weeks at home, opening the door to see a box neither my roommate nor I had ordered was like a shot of epinephrine straight to the thigh. Even better was the box’s contents: a Brita Longlast water filtration system. I regard refrigerator-chilled, pitcher-purified water as the peak of luxury, so I’d long coveted the product. And here it was, at my door, for free!
But here’s the rub: The pamphlet that came with this gift said my water may have lead in it.
Well, kind of. Denver Water’s supply is lead-free. But certain water service lines, the smaller pipes that connect businesses and homes to the utility company’s main system, are made of lead. (The metal was an inexpensive, and therefore popular, option for home construction across the United States before we understood that even low levels of exposure could cause health problems like kidney and liver damage.) Lead can seep into water as it flows through these pipes, contaminating the water that comes out of our faucets. This was, in part, how water was contaminated during the Flint water crisis that started in 2014, though other factors, including mismanagement, exacerbated the issue far beyond what Denver is experiencing.
Not every building has this problem. Denver Water estimates that 64,000 to 84,000 of the lines throughout the city are made of lead, about 20 to 27 percent of the company’s roughly 315,000 active taps. Homes built before 1951 are the ones most likely to have lead service lines—a major downer for me, the resident of an apartment constructed in the 1920s. After weeks of scary news about the novel coronavirus, learning that the stuff I’ve been using to make my coffee might be laced with the toxic metal (no, boiling does not help) felt akin to being struck on the head by the proverbial falling piano.
Before an instrument clobbers you, too, know this: Denver Water has a strategy called the Lead Reduction Program. Approved in December 2019 by the Environmental Protection Agency and launched last month, it says utility workers will identify and replace all lead service lines with safe, copper ones over the next 15 years. Denver Water has already been making this swap, usually when other repairs are needed on a specific line, around 1,000 times a year, so the new plan dramatically speeds up the process.
Still, 15 years is a long time when you’re potentially ingesting a substance connected to a variety of health problems like heart disease. Enter the Britas. Every household suspected of having lead pipes gets one for free, along with a new filter every six months. Plus, in March, Denver Water increased the pH of all water delivered to customers, which makes the liquid less corrosive and strengthens a coating on the insides of pipes that prevents them from leaching lead.
The plan came about after 2012, when Denver Water detected levels of lead in some homes that exceeded 15 parts per billion. When lead concentration hits that level, the EPA requires action. (Experts say no amount of lead is safe.) Typically, though, that action means mixing orthophosphate, a food additive that helps control corrosion of the inside of lead pipes, into the water. Orthophosphate can impact the environment, though, and Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, wanted to take a different approach. “Because of the environmental concerns, and public health concerns of not getting at the source of the problem, we decided to propose a different approach of just going in and removing the lead service lines,” he says.
Removing all the lead pipes will require higher up-front costs than adding orthophosphate. Rather than charging individual homeowners, as the water utility in Madison, Wisconsin did when it removed all lead pipes starting in 2001, Denver Water will be using rate increases across their customer base to cover the cost. The company predicts a single-family home will pay an extra dollar or so per month, though it’s still looking into grants and other financing strategies to further lower the cost.
Residences aren’t the only buildings at risk for lead contamination—Denver Water also found 3,000 commercial buildings, including some schools and daycares, it plans to investigate. Because a building’s water must be turned off to swap lead pipes for copper ones, Denver Water is focusing on replacing pipes at schools and daycares during the stay-at-home order, when those buildings are empty, according to a press release.
Danny Katz applauds Denver Water for the comprehensive plan. The Colorado state director of the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a non-partisan team advocating for consumer protections with branches around the nation, Katz is involved with Get The Lead Out. The campaign raises awareness about lead-contaminated water in schools across the United States. “Nationwide, we don’t have a comprehensive system for tracking this problem, he says. “We’re not ripping out or replacing the service lines at the rate we need to be.”
Despite Denver Water’s efforts, his criticism still applies to Colorado more broadly. In a March 2019 joint report from PIRG and Environment America, Colorado’s state lead policies earned an “F.” In 2017, HB17-1306 authorized Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment to set up a grant program to help some schools test for lead. The results of that test must be made public, but it’s voluntary and does not mandate a next step if lead is detected below the EPA’s 15 parts per billion limit. “This shouldn’t all be on Denver Water’s shoulders,” Katz says. “The state and federal government need to be making this happen across the nation in the next ten years. We’re not acting with enough urgency.” (One federal program he is happy to see? The Reduction in Lead Exposure Via Drinking Water grant, in which the EPA will award $39.9 million to help disadvantaged communities, including schools and childcare centers, actually remove, not just test for, sources of lead. Applications for the grant end on June 1, 2020.)
Denver Water’s plan won’t eliminate all sources of lead in our water. Before 1987, lead soldering was often used to connect copper pipes. Faucets and fixtures installed before 2014 also may be partially made of brass, which is not lead-free. If you’re worried about lead in your home, you can request a free test from Denver Water here and check to see if your address might have lead service lines here. And if you are on that list, like yours truly? Watch your mail: Denver Water will be sending information with next steps out to those in need of a water service line replacement. In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying my Brita—because there’s never been a better time to celebrate the little things.