Legislature may finally get the lead out of Minnesota water and wildlife

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Lead poisoning is one of the oldest medical conditions known to humankind. It’s a virtually irreversible, permanent disease caused by exposure to lead through ingestion or breathing. There is no safe level of lead, and it’s especially dangerous to children. Once inside the body, lead settles in bones and nerve tissue, causing developmental and behavioral issues, organ damage, pain, seizures, and in severe cases, death.

It’s heartbreaking that Minnesota still sees at least 700 children test positive for lead exposure every year, and it’s especially frustrating that lead was used in this country for so long in so many unsafe ways – and still is today. Lead paint – a key source of childhood exposure – wasn’t banned until the 1970s. Lead wasn’t banned from use in new water pipes until 1986. And it was still allowed in gasoline for cars – a practice that devastated entire generations of people – in the United States up until the mid-90s. Yet, use of lead it is still allowed in other applications, like ammunition for hunting and tackle for fishing.

Lead ammunition and tackle are devastating to wildlife. The Humane Society estimates that between 10 and 20 million birds and other animals die from lead they injest from the remains of hunted animals. To focus on just one species as an example, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates that 40% of Minnesota trumpeter swan deaths are from lead poisoning. In just one instance in March 2019, 10 trumpeter swans died at Sucker Lake in Vadnais Heights from lead.

Now, in 2022, Minnesota has a chance at enormous progress on protecting people and wildlife from lead exposure. Bills introduced in the Legislature to remove lead from water infrastructure, hunting, and fishing have a real chance at becoming law. MEP Great Lakes Program Director Andrew Slade testified in a Minnesota House Preventive Health Division hearing on these issues and bills earlier this week. These lifesaving efforts are a long time coming.

Water pipes are an invisible source of the toxin

Lead was used in water pipes in the United States for most of our country’s history, giving it plenty of time to become established in plumbing across America. Researchers noticed it caused health problems in the 1850s. Now, more than 15 million Americans still use drinking water that comes through lead service lines from the street. Many of them live in Minnesota’s oldest major cities, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth.

Duluth was the focus of MEP’s own efforts to investigate this threat. Working with community partners, we tested drinking water in 52 homes in Duluth for lead and helped secure filters for families exposed, building support for wider progress on the issue. The City of Duluth has since begun their own similar efforts to address the problem – an all-too common one in Rust Belt cities.

Testing, filtration, and simply running tap water for a couple of minutes each morning to remove lead are among the partial solutions for individual families, but they aren’t a complete fix – and many people are unaware that their homes connect to lead service lines. The only permanent, fully effective solution is to remove and replace the lead pipes that bring water into homes.

For an individual family, that’s an expensive process, and financing options are limited. Last year’s federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will provide significant funding to tackle the problem, and Minnesota legislators have introduced legislation – HF 2650 and SF 2531 – that would allow our state to take the lead in removing these water supply lines within ten years.

This is an investment that’s been a long time coming in Minnesota, and there’s no reason to delay it any longer. Every year we continue to wait means more people harmed or permanently disabled by lead exposure, causing human tragedy and significant health costs. Lead service line replacement is, in the long term, one of the most affordable things we can do to make Minnesotans healthier and safer.

Lead fragments are devastating bird species

Meanwhile, Minnesota’s landscape is riddled with its own lead problem. Fragments of lead shot from hunting and lead fishing lures can be found throughout the state. That’s especially hazardous for scavenging birds like bald eagles, which pick through the remains of deer that have been shot and cleaned, as well as the remains of fish. UMN Raptor Center Executive Director Victoria Hall says that of her center’s patients, “85-90% of all bald eagles admitted have some level of lead in their blood.” Other birds that use gizzard stones to process food can mistake lead waste for pebbles.

Hunters and anglers and their families run similar risks. Seth Moore, Director of Biology and Environment for the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa testified that the meat from animals harvested with lead ammunition can often contain hidden lead fragments, small enough to escape notice but large enough to harm people who consume them. Moore and his office are helping to encourage tribal members to use copper bullets instead. “The industry has done a very good job of replicating what lead ammunition can do,” Moore said.

The solution is a simple one: requiring non-toxic ammunition and tackle, rather than lead, be used in Minnesota. A bill, HF 2556 / SF 2545, would enact the effective requirement for lead ammunition, while HF 157 / SF 247 would address lead tackle. As Dale Gentry, Conservation Director of Audubon Minnesota reported to the House hearing, “…banning lead can lead to measurable, population-level decreases in blood lead levels, as was found on black ducks in New Jersey.” 

The bills’ path forward

MEP and our partners will continue to push lead removal and banning as one of our top efforts during this legislative session. These efforts to get the lead out – just like the U.S. bans on lead in gasoline and paint – are long overdue, and the decisions of the past will continue to haunt us until we get the lead out, all of it. Today, we have the chance to save untold numbers of children, families, and wildlife from this toxin.

What you can do: Use our action system to contact your Legislators and ask them to making getting the lead out a priority at the Capitol.

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