NEWSBRIEF: Health dept: $8 billion benefit from removing lead from drinking water

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) released a report on Feb. 28 showing that removing all lead from drinking water infrastructure could cost up to around $4 billion, but the benefits to public health and the economy could reach up to $8.47 billion.

Developed with the University of Minnesota, the report estimated costs for removing the two most significant sources of lead at between $1.52 billion and $4.12 billion over the next 20 years. The costs come from replacing lead service lines, which connect homes with water mains, and replacing in-home plumbing and fixtures that contain lead.

Lead is a poisonous metal that can cause long-term health and behavioral problems. Coming in contact with lead can cause serious health problems for everyone. There is no safe level of lead.

The report, “Lead in Minnesota Water,” also projected that the removal of lead would reap benefits of $4.24 billion to $8.47 billion during this time through health benefits that will enhance brain development and lifetime productivity in people, resulting in increased earnings and taxes paid.

“For every dollar spent on addressing lead in drinking water, we would see at least two dollars in benefits,” said Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. “As we see in many other areas of public health, preventing a health problem is more cost effective than waiting for a health problem to develop and then treating it.”

The Minnesota Legislature directed MDH to conduct an analysis to determine the scope of the lead problem in Minnesota’s water and the cost to eliminate lead exposure in drinking water. In this report, MDH assessed the scope of the lead problem by looking at the extent of lead in drinking water infrastructure as well as factors that allow lead to get into drinking water.

The most significant contributor of lead to drinking water is leaching from pipes and plumbing. The report makes clear that lead is almost never found in sources of water, such as groundwater and surface water, or in wells, pumps and water treatment facilities. However, pipes containing lead can contaminate the water going into homes, schools and other buildings when the water absorbs lead from the pipes.

Corrosion control and public education strategies can reduce lead exposures only so far, the report notes. Results cannot be guaranteed and may not be the same for everybody. People living in older homes or properties that are not well maintained may be exposed to more lead from their water than others. To eliminate the risk of exposure to lead from drinking water, it would be necessary to remove all lead from pipes and other household plumbing, the report says. 

There are an estimated 100,000 lead service lines remaining in Minnesota that contribute a significant risk of lead leaching into drinking water.

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