MEP’s work shines light on lead in Duluth drinking water

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

For months, MEP has been working to help shine a spotlight and help families in Duluth through one of the most potent household health threats there is: toxic lead in drinking water. Our work aims to help families take steps to protect themselves from the harm that lead causes

Lead is among the most common toxins encountered by families in their homes. It’s a potent neurotoxin that can cause permanent damage to nerves and vital organs, especially in children. Since governments around the world began banning lead from being used as an additive in gasoline, lead blood levels have improved, but millions of people are still at risk of exposure to lead in aging paint and in lead service lines that transport their household water. 

Cities like Duluth in the Great Lakes Basin frequently draw their water from relatively clean sources like Lake Superior. But by the time the water reaches the tap in many homes, it has already traveled through aging lead service pipes that leech the toxin into the water. People of color and low-income families are especially at risk.

There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, but the US EPA uses 15 micrograms per liter (mg/L) as a measure to trigger mandatory action. MEP set out to find more information on how this problem is impacting Duluth’s neighborhoods.

Our work so far, organized by MEP Duluth staffers Stephan Witherspoon and Andrew Slade, has tested 17 samples from homes in the Lincoln Park, Hillside, and Denfield neighborhoods. Those areas had already been identified by the Minnesota Department of Health for their relatively high levels of lead in infant blood.

We found that nine of the samples tested so far had non-detectable levels of lead, but the other eight gave cause for concern. Four had detectable levels below 5 mg/L, three had between 5 and 15 mg/L, and one had levels far above 15 mg/L. As part of our follow-up, we provided filters and other resources to help mitigate the lead. Running the tap for at least two minutes before its first use each day can help reduce the amount of lead in the water, though it isn’t foolproof.

Filters and running water down the drain is not a solution to the lead pipes problem. Aside from the long-term cost of both techniques, many families are unaware that their home pipes or service lines contain lead, and by the time they find out about their exposure, they may already suffer from the effects.

For MEP’s Stephan, there’s a clear link between the symptoms of lead poisoning and the mental health issues experienced by youth in the community. How many productive lives have been destroyed by an invisible poison in our drinking water?

The local community in Duluth has three demands for moving forward on this issue, and MEP is supporting them in this quest. First, lead testing should be readily available and free to all Duluth residents who request it, just like it is in St. Paul and other cities. The city should develop and make easily available an inventory of all lead service lines in Duluth. And it should commit to replacing all lead service lines within 10 years, using a clear funding plan that draws on city, state, and federal dollars.

Replacing lead service lines would be a fully achievable public health win. Mitigating the danger of lead paint in older homes will be a long and continual process, but targeting lead pipes can be done quickly and relatively inexpensively, and according to the MN Department of Health address about 50% of the source of lead poisoning for families. It’s time to get the lead out.

MEP would like to acknowledge the support for this project from Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, River Network, and EcoLibrium3.

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