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Lead Pipes throughout History
It is rather curious to think about, knowing what we know now, that lead pipes were used since the beginning of modern plumbing. The word “plumbing” in fact stems from the Latin word for lead, ‘plumbum’. The romans also used lead for plates and utensils for eating. Lead was used because it is extremely malleable and widely available. Lead poisoning was a common malady for many ancient Romans. The symptoms of chronic lead poisoning include loss of short-term memory, depression, nausea, abdominal pain, loss of coordination, anemia and more. The effects of lead are so severe on humans, that some scholars even argue that the wide use of lead pipes and other products used in ancient Rome, ultimately contributed to its downfall. A theory which holds some weight considering the erratic behavior of many of the emperors in ancient Rome. They were aware that lead could be harmful to them, a quote from Vitruvius in the time of Augustus reveals their knowledge of this,
“Water conducted through earthen pipes is more wholesome than that through lead; indeed that conveyed in lead must be injurious, because from white lead is obtained, and this is said to be injurious to the human system.”
Despite the known harm caused by lead pipes dating back to ancient times, lead was still used as the primary source for conveying water to cities in the United States’ early days. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that many cities and towns in the United States began prohibiting or restricting their use. In response, the Lead Industries Association (LIA) launched a campaign to promote the use of lead pipes. This campaign went on for decades, during which the lead industry borrowed the ear of every plumber, architect, and federal official they could to inform them of the advantages of using lead pipes. In addition, members of the lead industry shared practical advice on installation and repair of the lead pipes. The Lead Industries Association even published newsletters and booklets describing the benefits of using lead pipes for water service.
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) & Lead Ban
Astonishingly, it took several more decades until legislation to prohibit the installation of new lead pipes for drinking water was finally put in to place. The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was passed by congress in 1974, which authorize the EPA to set national standards to protect public drinking water and its sources against naturally occurring or human-made contaminants. An amendment made to the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1986, banned the installation of lead water pipes throughout the nation.
Even with these rules put in to place, it is still impossible to reverse the damage done by lead poisoning. More recently, we have seen the catastrophic effects of lead in drinking water through the Flint Water Crisis on 2014 and the Lead contamination of the water in Washington D.C. in 2001.
In Michigan, we have the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), which is responsible for enforcing the Safe Drinking Water Act. Michigan has over 1 million households served by private wells. It is each homeowners’ responsibility to have their residential well surveyed as well as pipes in a home built prior to 1986. This is a service offered by Thumb home inspection.