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Getting the lead out of water pipes, for free

Federal funds available to Boston residents to eliminate health risks

Avery Bleichfeld
Getting the lead out of water pipes, for free
PHOTO: COURTESY OF MUCK ROCK

Boston property owners will be able to have their lead water pipes replaced for free, thanks to federal funding, the Boston Water and Sewer Commission announced this month.

Starting in 2005, the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC) offered a $1,000 grant to property owners to make the upgrade. Over the years, that amount has been raised to $2,000, $4,000, and now, through $2.8 million in federal funding in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, property owners can get their lead service lines replaced without cost to them.

“We’re trying to get the lead out of everywhere with property owners,” said Thomas Bagley, a BWSC spokesperson. “This program — they should take advantage of it while we have it.”

Bagley, who did not say exactly when the program will end, said the change will also apply to property owners who have replaced their pipes through the BWSC since January, retroactively reimbursing them for any costs that went over the $4,000 that the previous grant covered.

Exposure to lead can lead to a number of health problems, particularly for children under 6.

“Lead, as you know, can cause many problems as people are subjected to it in many different ways. Water is one of the sources of lead that are in homes,” Bagley said. “With children in particular, it can lead to lead poisoning, damaging the brain and affecting the body. The health and safety of our residents is our top priority.”

Lead poisoning can lead to irreparable issues with learning development, loss of IQ points and the behavior of children. In the long term, it can cause issues with high blood pressure, hearing loss and infertility, said Dr. Noah Buncher, a pediatrician with Boston Medical Center’s Lead Clinic.

Due to the age of Boston’s housing stock — a June report from the Bipartisan Policy Center found that more than 30% of the city’s housing stock dates back to pre-1940, more than double the national rate — many homes in the city are at risk for lead pipes and paint.

“Essentially, most every zip code in Boston … is a high-risk lead-exposure zip code,” Buncher said.

In Massachusetts, children of color often face an outsized impact from lead poisoning, both from lead water mains and chipping lead paint. According to a 2021 report from the state Department of Public Health, Black children are almost twice as likely to have elevated lead levels compared to white kids. Children who identify as mixed-race are three times more likely.

Buncher said many of his young patients also are facing issues outside of lead poisoning, like housing and food insecurity and issues with transportation and racism.

“My patients at Boston Medical Center that I see are really some of the city’s and the state’s most vulnerable children,” he said. “After talking to the family for just a few minutes, [lead poisoning is] really just the tip of the health iceberg.”

Addressing the issues is complicated by the fact that for these families, most of whom Buncher said rent their homes, the ability to fix the issue falls on the landlord.

For those who do own their home, abatement processes are expensive. Buncher said the state offers grants, but they take time and often don’t cover the whole cost.

According to data from the BWSC’s lead service line map, Brighton, East Boston and Allston are the three Boston neighborhoods with the most lead service lines, making up over half the recorded pipes.

Much of the state’s approach to addressing lead poisoning tackles issues after a child is screened and shown to have elevated lead levels — what Buncher calls secondary prevention. Those efforts might include abatement in the house or education of the family.

The BWSC’s pipe replacement program is an important step in primary prevention, he said.

“If we can remove these lead service lines before children are exposed to the potentially contaminated drinking water, we are saving IQ points, we are improving health outcomes in the long run,” Buncher said.

For property owners wondering if they need to replace a lead service line, Bagley said in older homes, there’s a good bet that there are lead service lines that need to be replaced.

Property owners can use the BWSC’s lead service map to identify if they have a lead service line. If there isn’t information online, but they suspect they might have one — or if they want more information about replacing their lead service line — they can call the BWSC lead hotline at (617) 989-7888.