For much of the past three years, they lived in fear of their water.
After buying a home in Chelsea, Nathan Seavey and his wife learned their water pipes were lined with lead, and replacing them would cost thousands of dollars. Even though they had a newborn, they resigned themselves to live with it, filtering whatever they drank and relying on the city’s assurances that their water was safe.
“My wife was terrified, and there were a lot of tears,” said Seavey, 39, whose wife recently gave birth to another son. “We had no idea when we bought, and it was really disappointing and frustrating to learn that there are still so many lead pipes.”
Despite the grave dangers of lead, which can cause lifelong health problems, especially for children, there are as many as 10 million lead service lines in the United States, with an estimated 220,000 in Massachusetts, according to state and federal environmental officials.
Now, years after public health officials determined that no amount of lead in the blood is safe, President Biden has proposed eliminating the nation’s remaining lead pipes, calling them a “clear and present danger to our children’s health” during his address to Congress this week.
In addition to replacing service lines to millions of homes, the president’s $45 billion plan would reduce lead exposure in some 400,000 schools.
“It’s just plain wrong that in the United States of America today, millions of children still receive their water through lead service pipes,” Biden wrote on Twitter last month. “It’s long past time we fix that.”
As the dangers of lead exposure became clear, Congress banned its use in house paint in 1978. Eight years later, lawmakers banned lead — a malleable, leak-resistant metal — in newly installed plumbing systems.
But officials allowed existing lead lines to remain, with the prevailing view that slight changes in the chemistry of drinking water and lubricants would prevent the pipes from corroding. The limits of that approach became tragically evident when officials in Michigan seven years ago failed to apply the necessary corrosion inhibitors to a new water source for Flint, exposing about 100,000 residents there to elevated lead levels.
The Environmental Protection Agency is now reviewing regulations approved in the final days of the Trump administration that would reduce the percentage of lead pipes that public water systems must replace every year.
The Trump administration’s proposed rules would also mandate testing for lead in water at schools and child-care facilities as well as require municipalities to conduct surveys of lead pipes, make their locations public, and notify affected residents, all of which environmental advocates welcomed.
But advocates and attorneys general from Massachusetts and eight other states have urged the EPA to make the rules more stringent by lowering the maximum concentrations of lead allowed before triggering a requirement that municipalities replace the pipes.
A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated about 5.5 million people between 2015 and 2018 consumed excessive amounts of lead from public water systems.
“We have myopically focused on the risks from lead paint and have underestimated the risks of lead in water,” said Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group. “We were way too confident that corrosion control would solve the problem in water, but we now realize we’re vulnerable.”
The full extent of lead pipes remains unknown, given the lack of requirements for surveys. A 2016 survey by the American Water Works Association estimated that Massachusetts had more lead service lines than all but 10 states.
That same year, Massachusetts asked public water suppliers to complete an inventory of their lead lines, but nearly a third of them never responded.
State environmental officials noted that many of the lead pipes in Massachusetts were installed nearly a century ago and acknowledged the limits of previous surveys.
Part of the problem of replacing them has been that few municipalities cover the full cost. Most only pay for the section of pipe that runs from water mains to the curb, leaving the private portion to homeowners, at an average cost of about $5,000.
In recent years, public water suppliers in Massachusetts have replaced more than 8,000 lead lines, costing about $40 million, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. In 2019, state officials launched an incentive program to replace private lines, and last year they used a federal grant to increase testing of drinking water at schools and child-care facilities.
In Boston, which has been replacing lead lines with copper for decades, city officials have been scouring their records to identify the remaining lead pipes, an effort John Sullivan, chief engineer of the city’s Water and Sewer Commission, called a “massive undertaking.”
They’ve identified about 3,900 lead lines, with another 1,800 that use unknown materials, Sullivan said. In recent years, the city has increased assistance to homeowners, now offering $4,000 to replace their lead lines and no-interest loans to cover any additional cost.
The urgency to replace the lines was underscored last fall when tests of Boston homes with lead pipes found elevated lead concentrations in drinking water. Environmental advocates have urged regulators to reduce the amount of lead allowed in drinking water by a third.
“It’s time to get the lead out,” said Sullivan, who estimated the Biden plan would save the city more than $22 million.
The state’s most vulnerable community may be Malden, where roughly a quarter of all service lines are lead — the highest percentage in the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority system.
Unlike Boston, Malden can’t afford to replace homeowners’ pipes. Officials have focused on replacing the city’s portion of the service lines while offering residents low-interest loans.
“Every spare dime, we put to replacing lines,” said Maria Luise, special assistant to the city’s mayor.
Since many residents can’t afford to replace them, “we have to recommend they use filters,” she said.
Others have no idea their service lines are lead. Michael Hardiman, a retired police officer, has lived in the same home on Nichols Road since 1978, and though his address was listed on a city map that indicated he has lead pipes, he was never informed, he said.
“It’s really surprising — and concerning,” said Hardiman, 72.
For years, Malden has been under a consent decree from the state that now requires the city to replace 150 service lines a year, but environmental advocates have urged local officials to accelerate the program.
“Malden needs to be doing more,” said Maureo Fernandez y Mora, associate state director of Clean Water Action, an advocacy group.
In Chelsea, which this summer plans to conduct an in-depth survey of its lead pipes, local officials have taken a different approach. Over the past two years, using no-interest loans from the MWRA, they have paid to replace more than150 lead lines.
“Our residents simply don’t have the capacity to handle this,” said Fidel Maltez, Chelsea’s commissioner of public works. “We decided we couldn’t wait.”
Among the beneficiaries of that program are Nathan Seavey and his family, whose lead service lines were replaced in January — at no cost to them.
After years of religiously filtering the water, as well as regularly testing their older son for lead poisoning, they’re grateful. But they still can’t believe there was no requirement for the previous homeowners — or the city — to disclose that their three-family home had lead pipes.
“This is a systemwide problem, and it must be fixed,” Seavey said. “It shouldn’t be this way.”