Written by: Ryan Magee, Research Scientist, Southwest Environmental Finance Center (SW EFC)


Today, the health impacts of lead are well-chronicled in children and in adults. Children exposed to lead, often through lead-based paint dust, may deal with chronic conditions including damaged brain and nervous systems, learning and behavior challenges, and slowed growth.[1] Adults may suffer impacts to their reproductive systems, as well as nerve disorders, memory and concentration issues, and muscle and joint pain.[2] Lead causes chronic health conditions that inhibit an individual’s full potential, and do so despite available alternatives that could mitigate such unfortunate results.

Despite these health risks, lead’s presence in modern society remains startlingly intractable. Although attempts to eliminate exposure began in earnest in the 1970s, this naturally occurring element has continued to make headlines in the United States, often as the result of exposure from old infrastructure. The 2014 Flint water crisis is just one example of this issue; White House figures cite 24 million housing units whose walls have “significant lead-based paint hazards” and 400,000 school and child-care facilities who risk exposing their toddlers and schoolchildren to lead-contaminated water.[3]

In response to such concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated that all community and non-transient non-community public water systems complete lead service line (LSL) inventories by October 16, 2024, in order to track and replace pipes made from lead and to give the public accurate information about the infrastructure providing water to their homes.[4] More recently, the Biden administration also announced efforts to remove the nine million lead pipes that still transmit water across the country.[5]

Removing lead is now a national priority, with a great deal of responsibility placed on both the public and water agencies to act in order to eliminate a surprisingly resilient threat. However, exactly why a toxic element such as lead is so prevalent is perhaps less well-known. Explaining the history of lead’s use in everyday application, the health risks associated with its use, and the overall rationale for new, tighter restrictions today are vital for the public to understand.

Historical Context

A malleable, soft, and inexpensive metal, lead has proved reliable and easy to use since prehistoric times. The relatively low melting point for smelting and purification of lead and wide distribution across the world both make it ideal for industrial application. This combination of factors made lead a “miracle metal” for advancing technology, even as its chronic health effects emerged in tandem.[6]

Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, by the 1900s the United States was both the largest producer and consumer of lead for a variety of technological needs. The invention of tetraethyl lead as an “anti-knock” agent in gasoline revolutionized the range of the internal combustion engine and redoubled U.S. reliance on the element.[7] Leaded gasoline thus proved crucial for advancing the age of the automobile and remained the standard until the 1970s.

Beyond gasoline, lead continued to prove useful in manufacturing of household goods, in bullet and ammunition supplies, in fishing tackle, and in plumbing and pipeworks. And because of its more appealing appearance and durability, lead-based paint remained the preferred choice of use in household application long after the impacts of lead exposure began to be scientifically documented in the early twentieth century, particularly in children exposed to lead-based paint.[8]


Early Regulation

Response to the growing awareness of the dangers of lead exposure was often stymied by the element’s omnipresence, durability, and cost-effectiveness. Despite knowledge of the danger of inhaling lead, only voluntary standards for leaded gasoline for the automotive industry were enacted until the 1970s.[9] Similarly, despite most of Europe banning lead paint by the 1920s, the United States continued to recommend white lead for farm buildings and domestic interiors into the 1940s, while attempts to raise public awareness about its dangers were met with scorn by leading lead industrialists.[10] Only in 1971 did Congress restrict use of lead paint for residential use, with a full ban coming into effect in 1978.[11] And despite evidence of lead’s chronic health impacts, its historic use in pipe works means that more than 10 million American households connect to water via lead pipes, despite EPA enactment of regulations for lead in drinking water in 1991.[12]

Thankfully, the regulations that have been enacted since the 1970s have produced dramatic effects. As recently as the 1960s, the idea of too much lead meant acceptable levels up to 60 µg/dL, and 88% of children had levels above 10 µg/dL in the late 1970s.[13] (A reminder: no amount of lead is concerned safe today.) While the median concentration of lead in children’s blood remained at 15 µg/dL in 1976–1980, enacted regulations that reduced exposure to both air-based lead and paint-based lead has led to decrease of 96 percent down to 0.6 µg/dL in the most recently available data from 2017–2020.[14]

While this is good news, folks in Flint and other marginalized communities continue to deal with outsized burdens regarding remediation of lead in their infrastructure. Black non-Hispanic and Mexican American children face statistically significant higher amounts of lead in their blood in comparison with White non-Hispanic children. 

Similarly, children in households considered below the poverty level of an CDC study also faced significantly higher levels of lead in their systems.[15] The social, economic, and health repercussions of these elevated levels remains difficult quantify, but one United Nations estimate suggests that the global phaseout of leaded gasoline saves $2.44 trillion each year and prevents more than 1.2 million premature deaths.[16] Continuing to systematically reduce lead to zero seems prudent and responsible in light of such studies.


As further research establishes how even small amounts of lead can have deleterious effects on humans, and particularly on children, the need to eradicate it from as many potential sources of exposure has only increased. The Biden-Harris Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan seeks to utilize approved funding from previous infrastructure plans to specifically eliminate lead from drinking water through a variety of initiatives. These include: $15 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding going to states, Tribes, and Territories for lead service line replacement; the EPA establishing regional technical assistance hubs to help fast track removal projects; and improved collaboration with local, state, and federal partners over the next ten years.[17] The Biden administration has specifically requested that states prioritize underserved communities, including targeted work in Tribal and low-income communities. New plans were also unrolled to replace all lead water pipes within a decade in American cities.[18]

Understanding the nuances of how water utilities can best identify, document, report, and ultimately replace the lead service line inventory (LSLI) in their systems will serve as a starting point for other blog posts. But understanding the legacy of lead, its impact on humans, the attempts to ameliorate those effects through regulation, and the purpose of the new guidelines is helpful in demonstrating the desire to best serve the public through removal of aging infrastructure that can cause damage to both present and future generations. Getting the lead out of our water is a noble goal, and one worth the time and money invested to protect the health of all individuals.



[1] CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/prevention/health-effects.htm

[2] EPA: https://www.epa.gov/lead/what-are-some-health-effects-lead

[3] White House: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/12/16/fact-sheet-the-biden-harris-lead-pipe-and-paint-action-plan/

[4] LCR Revisions: https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/revised-lead-and-copper-rule

[5] Davenport, NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/30/climate/epa-lead-drinking-water-pipes.html

[6] Morris, NPR: https://www.npr.org/2016/04/06/473268312/before-it-was-dangerous-lead-was-the-miracle-metal- that-we-loved

[7] Lewis, EPA: https://www.epa.gov/archive/epa/aboutepa/lead-poisoning-historical-perspective.html

[8] Reich, Environmental Defense Fund: https://www.edf.org/sites/default/files/the-hour-of-lead.pdf

[9] Lewis, EPA: https://www.epa.gov/archive/epa/aboutepa/lead-poisoning-historical-perspective.html

[10] Reich, Environmental Defense Fund: https://www.edf.org/sites/default/files/the-hour-of-lead.pdf

[11] CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/prevention/sources/paint.htm

[12] White House: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/12/16/fact-sheet-the-biden-harris-lead-pipe-and-paint-action-plan/

[13] NIH: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1421365/

[14] Biomonitoring – Lead: https://www.epa.gov/americaschildrenenvironment/biomonitoring-lead

[15] Ibid.

[16] Domonoske, NPR: https://www.npr.org/2021/08/30/1031429212/the-world-has-finally-stopped-using- leaded-gasoline-algeria-used-the-last-stockp

[17] White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/12/16/fact-sheet-the-biden-harris-lead-pipe-and-paint-action-plan/

[18] NPR, https://www.npr.org/2023/11/30/1216034743/lead-pipe-rules-drinking-water-epa-flint