High Lead Levels Found in Old Duluth Homes

In April this year, volunteers tested lead levels in drinking water in 102 homes in the city of Duluth. Out of 100 homes, 30 of them had lead levels that are above the current EPA limit of 15 parts per billion (ppb), and 49 out of them were at levels above 10 ppb. The city stated that no specific neighborhoods had higher amounts of lead than others but homes on a “dead-end” generally had higher lead results compared to homes in more densely developed areas. Officials are encouraging residents of Duluth who live in homes built before 1930 to run a faucet for at least 3 minutes before drinking water or to buy a filter.
In Duluth, there are around 28,000 water customers and 4,600 city-owned lead service lines and private wells that are probably exceeding that number according to Jim Benning, Director of Public Works and Utilities. The best way to determine if the property has a lead service line and whether precautions need to be taken is to get an inspection.
Photo by Brett Groehler, Courtesy of UMD Duluth
According to Benning, a new EPA standard will be enforced in 2024 and will set 10 ppb as the trigger level and the city will have to add more chemicals to its water supply. Benning said they are currently in full compliance with EPA and state regulations and added that the quality of the water has not changed.
Duluth’s Mayor Emily Larson said that recent testing provided “information that would put us out of future compliance” when the EPA lowers its maximum lead threshold in a couple of years. It costs $8,000 to replace the public and private connections and the city will need around $40 million to remove all lead service lines. The mayor of Duluth was asked by Benning to consider using some of the city’s money from the American Rescue Plan which is $58 million toward lead service line replacement.
The Star Tribune reported that 44% of Duluth homes (17,000 properties) were built before 1940 according to census figures. In 1929, the use of lead service lines was largely halted but it might exist in some homes that are built in the following years. How many properties with private lead service lines are out there in Duluth is unknown.
City’s Mayor Larson said that in the big picture, no amount of lead is the right amount of lead and most of the homeowners and private well owners do not have lead service lines and they don’t have to be concerned. He also added that they are just trying to get ahead and to continue to meet the acceptable standards in line with health and the EPA.

Lead in Drinking Water

The most common sources of lead in drinking water are lead pipes, plumbing fixtures, and faucets. Some pipes that are carrying drinking water from its source to the home can contain lead. Pipe fittings, welding solder, and household plumbing fixtures that are made before 1989 can also contain lead. So, lead in water comes from homes with lead service lines that connect the home to the main water line.

Lead enters the water when a chemical reaction occurs in the plumbing materials that contain lead and this is known as corrosion. This reaction can be a lot more dangerous if water has high acidity or low mineral content. There are some factors that determine how much lead will enter the water:
  • the acidity of the water
  • types and amounts of minerals in the water
  • the water temperature
  • how long does the water stay in the pipes
  • the amount of lead that water comes in the contact with
  • coatings in the pipes

Health Risks From Lead In The Water

The maximum contaminant level for lead in drinking water is set to zero by EPA because it can be harmful to human health at low exposure levels. Lead is a toxic metal and can accumulate in the body over time. Risks of lead will depend on many different things such as the chemical condition of the water and the amount consumed.
Exposure to lead can have some serious consequences on the health of the kids. A higher level of exposure will attack the brain and central nervous system to cause coma, convulsions, and even death. At lower levels it can affect children’s brain development which will result in reduced intelligence quotient, behavioral changes such as reduced attention span and can also increase antisocial behavior. Lead exposure can cause some other issues such as anemia, renal impairment, immunotoxicity, and hypertension.