The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) recently released a report showing that removing all lead from drinking water infrastructure could cost just over $4 billion, but the benefits to public health and the economy could reach more than $8 billion.

Developed in conjunction 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 are associated with replacing lead service lines, which connect homes with water mains and re-placing 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 Jan Malcolm, Minnesota Health commissioner. “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. MDH has worked with cities and other public water systems in the state for more than 25 years on strategies to reduce the amount of lead in the water people drink.

The strategies have included corrosion-control techniques and public education. The more time water has been sitting in a building’s pipes, the more lead it may contain. Water consumers, as well as custodial workers in schools and businesses, have been urged to flush out lead by letting the water run before using it for drinking or cooking.

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.

Lead in new household plumbing and in solder (which connects sections of pipe together or with fixtures) has been significantly reduced in recent decades, although older homes may still have plumbing containing lead. Pipes and solder installed before 1986 are more likely to have high levels of lead. There are an estimated 100,000 lead service lines remaining in Minnesota that contribute a significant risk of lead leaching into drinking water.

Focusing resources on replacing lead service lines is therefore an effective way to reduce lead in drinking water. The report does not recommend a statewide strategy to replace in-home plumbing. Lead still exists from other sources, including lead-based paints, but a significant reduction in lead exposure can be achieved by addressing lead in water, the report’s authors added.

The report suggests several potential strategies to address the problem. These potential strategies have a range of costs, but all would produce greater benefits in the form of reduced health impacts and associated public expenditures.

The strategies include:

• Conducting a statewide inventory of lead service lines.

• Removing lead service lines at a measured pace.

• Increasing awareness of the dangers of lead exposure.

• Creating a general public information campaign.

• Conducting corrosion control studies and implementing optimized corrosion control.

• Creating partnerships and coordinating efforts statewide

More about the health effects of lead can be found at www.health.state.mn.us.